Review: Hillbilly Elegy

I’m probably the last person in the world to read this book (it came out in 2016), but since I’m quarantine’d up like the rest of the world, I finally got around to getting a digital copy from my library. It didn’t go so well. Anywho, here goes:

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Review for "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J. D. Vance (2018)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Oh hell no…I didn’t like this book.

J.D. Vance, a self described “hillbilly,” grew up poor and disadvantaged in the Appalachian Rust Belt of Ohio. His parents were divorced before he could talk, his mother had addiction issues, and his Mamaw took most of the responsibility for raising him. He eventually goes off to the Marines, on to Ohio State, and graduates from Yale Law. He carries emotional baggage from his childhood experiences, but honestly umm…Mr. Vance is not a hillbilly. With his Ivy League education and newfound book fame he’s probably among the top 10% of wage earners in the country. So umm, a hillbilly? I don’t think so.

This book points to meritocracy as the answer to every problem that deep poverty brings. If J.D. Vance can achieve the American Dream with a quality education, a decent job, and hard work, then why can’t you? The virtue signaling of this book is loud and unmistakable, that if you’re still poor in the richest and best country in the world, you deserve to be. It’s interesting that Mr. Vance has adopted a conservative political viewpoint to coincide with this fallacy, which completely ignores the social, racial, and gender inequities that have been present since the day this country was founded. He absolves the government of blame and espouses personal responsibility for ourselves and our communities, yet stops short of any kind of real solution for the poverty, drugs, and loss of manufacturing jobs that plague his beloved working class.

And then there’s race. Other than once or twice, there is very little discussion of the obvious, and that’s the fact that Appalachia is still a very racist place with a long history of hatred and violence towards black people and other minorities. I find it interesting that people look to this book as “the reason why Trump won,” but there’s no acknowledgement of the white supremacy that was already long present among the working class that made his win possible. His avoidance of this topic is cowardly and telling; a refusal to see simple facts.

This book was also boring. Who cares about J.D. Vance’s agony at figuring out which fork is which at his first big fancy dinner party?

I gave this book two stars, because one star seemed cruel. I still might go back and subtract one. What the hell.

5 thoughts on “Review: Hillbilly Elegy”

  1. I definitely did not like this book either. I think that Vance caught some small signs of poverty that I found interesting, like sleeping on one’s jeans, but overall, he skipped so many important parts of the book that would illuminate his success instead of suggesting he merely yoinked on his bootstraps and went to the top. Here are my thoughts on it, though I admit that I’m embarrassed that I didn’t focus as much on women and people of color as you: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1765158762

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    1. Exactly! And as I’m reading it I’m thinking: what a perfect time to call out the working class for their racism! But lo, this never happens. How could he gloss over this? This is what did it for me, it lacked any kind of real insight

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      1. I imagine he thinks because he hasn’t used any racial slurs he doesn’t think he’s racist. It’s sort of like Malcolm X said: he’d rather have the snarling Southern wolf than the foxy Northern liberal who puts you at ease and you’re surprised when it bites. For me, that’s what someone who is racist but isn’t aware of all the issues they contribute to are like (the fox).

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