Hillbilly Elegy lives up to the hype

Today, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis officially earned the top rank on The New York Times bestseller list, and deservedly so. I finished this book yesterday, and I think it lived up to the hype. There are already many capable reviews out there, so I won’t offer a full review here. Nevertheless, I would offer a handful of brief reflections.

It would be misleading to say that the book is about the plight of the working poor in America. It is not nearly so abstract. The book is actually a searching, introspective look at the author’s own troubled childhood in the Appalachian region of Kentucky and southern Ohio. Vance tells the story of his life. He is the son of a drug-addicted mother and of a family-deserting father. His mother’s dissolution pressed him and his sister into an endless parade of temporary live-in boyfriends and husbands. He was surrounded by drugs, alcohol, violence, and emotional abuse. The picture he draws of his own childhood is nothing short of heart-breaking. Nevertheless, some key influences “saved” him from repeating the mistakes of his parents.

The book demonstrates in spades that there is no simple statist solution to the so-called “plight of the working poor.” Vance’s experience shows that the problems in these communities lie far beyond the reach of the nanny state. Rather, broken people produce broken cultures and social pathologies. The only way to fix the culture and eliminate the pathologies is to fix the people. And that is the primary conflict of the book. Can people really change? Indeed, Vance’s own doubt about whether he himself could truly escape the demons of his past is one of the most poignant aspects of this story. It is clear that the problems he describes are primarily moral/spiritual in nature, and therefore so are the solutions.

This book is salty. Big time. But I hope that doesn’t turn readers away from this story. It is a story that all of us need to hear and understand. Why? Because it is the story of our neighbors. It is the story of us. That is why reviewers like Rod Dreher have had such high praise for Hillbilly Elegy. Dreher writes:

It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read… For Americans who care about politics and the future of our country, Hillbilly Elegy is the most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance. His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.

This is no exaggeration. The book is really that good and that important. Highly recommended.

8 Responses to Hillbilly Elegy lives up to the hype

  1. James Rigney August 19, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

    I just finished Hillbilly Elegy yesterday. Denny, I whole-heartedly agree with your thoughts on the book. Sadly, Vance’s memoir only reinforced a disheartening conclusion that I’ve been headed toward for the last couple of years: namely, that Christianity as we practice it here in the Bible Belt, while it may be ensuring some people’s eternal destiny, is doing very little to save them from the miserably dysfunctional lives that many of those same people are living right now.

    Culture matters. And Bible Belt culture is ill, and appears to have been sick for a long time. On balance, are the conservative religious and political views/beliefs/opinions that are most prominent in the culture of the Southern Bible-Belt:
    a. helping people get out of poverty, ignorance, and family dysfunction?
    b. contributing to poverty, ignorance, and family dysfunction?
    c. unimportant compared to non-religious / non-political factors?

    These are painful questions for me, a life-long resident of the Bible-Belt and a Christian and a Southern Baptist for the past 40+ years, to ask.

    I’m wondering….
    1. What can be done to help people in the Bible Belt get out of poverty, ignorance, and family dysfunction?
    2. Does conservative, evangelical Christianity have anything that can help those in the Bible Belt in these conditions?
    3. Does conservative politics?

    Also, confusing and disconcerting to me are the lifestyles of many, if not most, of the truly poor that I’ve known. If I had some experience with “the holy poor,” maybe I’d better understand the Lord’s “Blessed are the poor,” statement. Instead, most of the poor I’ve known seem entangled in immorality, crime, and family dysfunction. The proportion of the Southern poor who are leading these kinds of lives seems to me to be much higher than it was in my grandparents’ South–at least based on the stories they told.

    I admit, not only do I want my children, grandchildren, and fellow Bible Belters to escape hell and spend eternity with God, I’d prefer they live in stable, loving families. The empirical evidence points to that being correlated with being able to “make a living,” and that seems correlated with education or at least vocational training.

    Where did we American, conservative, Bible-Belt Christians go wrong?

  2. Christiane Smith August 19, 2016 at 7:02 pm #

    I found this sad quote by Vance: ““Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life.” (J.D. Vance)

    my goodness, how is it possible this THIS country to not know the opportunities available to us??? My father’s parents came to this country with nothing but their faith and their honorable character, my grandfather had the old-world dignity of his people before him. My father and my aunts all worked hard: my father into the military early, and the aunts to work as maids and in the factories of the Northeast on assembly lines. But the THIRD generation ? And the FOURTH generation? An explosion of accomplishment in the legal and medical fields.

    So does the book tell us how this ‘learned helplessness’ came about among the people of Appalachia and the hill country of the Southlands??? I’m sure there are many factors. When I think of ‘hillbillies’ and ‘dissolute’ living, I am wondering how seriously real films are like ‘Winter’s Bone’ ? I do know the impact of the Civil War on my mother’s people: a reversal of what happened to my father’s family, from social and political prominence and wealth to economic struggle and some poverty in three generations, yes.

    The contrast has always puzzled me. Maybe this book has some answers for me about my maternal family’s struggles. (?)

  3. Christiane Smith August 22, 2016 at 2:43 pm #

    Loved the post about the young Lieutenant who stopped his run and stood at attention for our National Anthem. Proud moment for ALL of us, Denny.
    Sorry to comment here, but cannot at the post, so forgive please.

  4. Andy Moffat September 2, 2016 at 5:11 pm #

    Does anyone know why comments are closed on the more recent posts?

  5. Andy Moffat September 5, 2016 at 11:16 am #

    Ah. Well ok then. 🙂 I’ll continue to read, but my Twitter account sits dormant and lonely. Ha

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