In Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance recounts the travails of his family in the years after they migrated from the hills of eastern Kentucky to burgeoning middle Ohio during the height of American industrialization. But Hillbilly Elegy is not only a book about Vance’s family but rather a broader discussion of the plight of all the thousands of Scots-Irish families who emigrated from Appalachia to the Midwest on promises of better lives for themselves and their families.
These families saw their lots improve compared to their counterparts who stayed behind, but they became alienated from extended family networks and lost the structural support that had been so essential to raising children and grandchildren. While the immigrating generation generally found financial success, their children were victims of the decline of American industrialization. They watched plants and factories close down around them and had little in the way of prospects for maintaining a steady income.
Hillbilly Elegy describes a situation in which substance abuse went from being prevalent to an outright crisis. Without the ability to financially support their families, fathers lost their sense of identity and purpose, and began to prey on their wives and children.
Yet Vance himself escaped the spiral toward self and cultural destruction. His path was littered with more potholes and detours than opportunities. Hillbilly Elegy can and should serve as a streetlamp for those who would follow the same path. Those working poor in the Rust Belt who are ignorant to the realities of financial aid or other resources that could help them realize a brighter future.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy isn’t all grim. He tells countless entertaining stories about his own family of hillbillies, who bring their hill-folk ways to suburban Ohio. Vance’s memoir is both enlightening and entertaining. I consider it a must read for anyone who appreciates tales of tragedy and triumph. Or who just wants to better grasp the plight of a significant percentage of America’s displaced and discouraged working poor. You can find Hillbilly Elegy on Amazon (affiliate link).
Rating (out of 4 gavels):
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