Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance

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Summary from Goodreads:

From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Before I delve into how I personally felt about this book I just want to clarify something: this is a memoir. Often sold and marketed as a social analysis or cultural studies (where it is shelved in my bookstore) I have a hard time ascribing it either classification. Vance gives us his personal story and a few anecdotes about the, as he sees it, undeserving poor from where he grew up. Broad or statistical evidence is almost completely absent and if you’re going to label something as a political or cultural analysis I think you need to supply more than just a few personal anecdotes. As a memoir, it’s great. As a broad sociological study it doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

This arguement for a different classification doesn’t take anything away from the book – if anything, it adds to its value. Why pretend to be something you’re not when you’ve crafted a great piece of memoirist writing?

And Vance is quite engaging. Look at this description of his grandparents:

Mamas told Papaw after a particularly violent night of drinking that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him. A week later, he came home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch. Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven year old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns.

And take the above of how readable it is throughout – Vance takes us from his “hillbilly” origins in Kentucky, to his lower-middle class upbringing in Ohio, to his success as a Marine and a Yale Law School Graduate. An incredibly admirable rags-to-riches, true blue American Dream story.

I will admit that Vance made me more than slightly uncomfortable in the later pages of the book when he starts prostetilizing. He’s a bit conservative for my taste and I don’t really agree with his whole “the poor need to pull up their own bootstraps” schtick.

Anyone else read this one? It’s been fairly popular in Australia so I’m curious as to its reception in America.

 

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