Readable Objects: Hillbilly Elegy

Here’s the thing about Hillbilly Elegy . . .

A few posts ago, I noted that I had a lot to say about the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Here’s the thing about Hillbilly Elegy . . . (I’m going to break it down for you.)

Hillbilly Elegy by author J.D. Vance is a readable memoir about Hillbilly life and culture. By readable, I mean it’s engaging, decently written, and accessible. Since I know nothing about Hillbilly life and culture, this was eye opening for me. The author does a good job of educating the reader on American culture, specifically in the Rust Belt region. I definitely learned something new and gained insight into how other people in the United States think and what matters to them. I recommend this book with a few caveats.

First, what works . . . His own personal story is interesting, and I enjoyed getting to know his family—in particular his Mamaw (grandmother). She is a pretty incredible woman. Hell, she’s a badass woman, and I loved her. I can see why he loved her and how much she means to him.

His writing style and way he tells his story makes this book. It’s as if he’s telling you the story of his life. It’s mostly narrative, and that appealed to me. (His prose isn’t perfect but it’s okay enough that I didn’t get hung up on it.)

Finally, what I mention above—the window into hillbilly life and the rural poor in the Rust Belt region of the United States sheds light on a culture and the people I took for granted and really knew nothing about. And while I don’t share the exact same experience (more on this later), the book helped me to understand their story.

Now for my caveats, quibbles, and what didn’t work for me . . .

Some of his research and statistics are not cited, and this bothered me, particularly because he uses the info to support an argument or illustrate a point. If you are going to use stats and make specific comments about the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners in different countries, you need to cite your source.

He also talks about “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs but doesn’t cite that information until he gets to a Wisconsin study about percentages of people who experience ACEs. He discusses ACEs like he’s a psychologist but he’s not. He has no knowledge other than whatever he’s read (which isn’t cited). And while he has the study that notes a higher percentage of working-class folks experience ACEs, I feel like he sums it up by dismissing the fact that other people in various socio-economic conditions have it too. This brings me to the next quibble I have with the book.

He really does a great job of painting the picture of what life is like for hillbillies and the white rural poor. What makes him less credible—and hypocritical—is he dismisses anyone else might have some struggles too. When he talks about the middle class or anyone who has done well in their life, he talks about them as if they have had zero issues, everything was handed to them, and their lives are perfect. That may be true for some but not all.

I grew up in a middle-class family and it was not all sunshine and roses. I’m well aware that I had advantages others didn’t have—a nice home, food to eat, a well-off community, and access to decent health care—but I lived in a chaotic, traumatic household. As Turkish immigrants, my parents experienced plenty of racism and discrimination. And as their Turkish-American daughter, I spent most of my school years defending myself against bullies.

It’s particularly amusing to me how he describes Obama as a liberal wealthy intellectual who had no struggles. How quickly people forget that, like the author, some people struggle or come from underprivileged circumstances but work hard and overcome them. (My father being a prime example—he grew up dirt poor.) Obama wasn’t born into a happy, healthy, stable middle-class family unit. His single mother struggled. And let’s not forget all the racism he encountered his whole life—and during his presidency. That issues gets completely ignored, and Vance labels Obama as an elitist. (That apparently is now the new death-knell word—good god, call me anything but not an elitist.)

Then there is the “tough love” approach he takes toward poor people: They’re lazy and they talk about working but don’t actually work BUT this is really all the government’s fault because of the liberal programs offered to assist the poor or working class. Of course, towards the end of the book, he throws in a quick “but don’t blame Obama, Bush or the government” as if that makes it better.

In the same vein as Reagan’s “welfare queens” comment, Vance criticizes government programs as handouts. He talks about seeing his unemployed (by choice) neighbor living off welfare and food stamps, eating steaks and gaming the system. I don’t doubt there are people who game the system but those are the exceptions we hear about. What about those people whom actually benefit from the programs—like the author himself?

Yep, the very programs he criticizes are ones that got him into Ohio State and eventually Yale for law school. Maybe because he was one of the rural poor, he feels he can criticize them, which makes sense because who knows that life better than someone who has lived it. I mean, I think it’s ok for me to criticize Turks because I am one, but if anyone else did, I’d call them ignorant, rude, and maybe even racist. So I don’t necessarily have an issue with his criticism of his people as some other readers did. But, I do have an issue with him basically saying government programs are the problem yet there is no acknowledgement of the fact that he did, indeed, benefit from them. It’s hypocritical, and thus, for me, less credible.

This all now brings me to my final quibble . . . Decide what your book is: a memoir about the culture you grew up in, your struggles, and how you personally created a different life for yourself OR an argument/analysis of the socio-economic conditions of a specific culture and class, in this case the rural poor. The memoir part—his story—is interesting and it works. When he tries to get into the argument of the causes of the socio-economic conditions and the psychology behind the rural poor, that’s where he fails miserably for all the reasons I mention above. I consider this dual-purpose a fault of his editor—he or she should’ve known better. (I can say this as an editor myself.)

It’s clear he wrote this book with an agenda in mind—he’s going to run for political office some time in the near future. This is his “Dreams from My Father” resume booster before his run. So keep an eye out for this guy because we’re going to hear more from him.


(Image found here.

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