As a memoir, J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is a reflection of his personal experiences growing up in the industrial Midwest, specifically in Kentucky and Ohio – where low-paying, blue-collared jobs have disappeared, where the economy has hollowed out, and where President Donald Trump consolidated his support and won the presidency in 2016 – and his perspectives on the consequences of the American class divide. These hillbillies of Appalachia are marked by distinctive cultural traits, yet they have struggled with poverty, and through his reflection Vance pens a damning critique of these working class whites: “What goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it”.
In this vein, the book is less an account of how Vance beat the odds – and perhaps more a rallying call for hillbillies to take control of their own lives. “Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith”, he wrote, as he detailed the problems of poverty and deprivation, the epidemic of prescription drug addiction, incarceration, poor physical health, bad public schools, as well as dysfunctional families and premature parenthood. Many of these problems are premised upon his own interactions and observations, and they are supplemented by statistics or figures showing how the hillbillies of the United States are, indeed, in a bad shape.
The most tender moments of “Hillbilly Elegy” are the writer’s interactions with his grandmother, or “Mamaw”: How she cared for and protected him, her musings and her thoughts, and eventually her unfortunate passing. Vance gave good glimpses of the other characters in his life (both good and bad), and even without lengthy expositions created a sense of intimacy with the reader. The same can also be said about him and his undertakings through a challenging 31 years – told in a chronological fashion – given his ability to emphasise only the most critical moments (without being necessarily verbose), and to tease out the key points from these moments. Through his eyes, the reader gets a better sense of the circumstances in his neighbourhood, and the many dilemmas he is confronted with, especially with his mother.
Unsurprisingly, he stressed that the starting point for any successful policy programme should be the home.
There is, ultimately, the important question about free will and choice – “How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children?” – and the supporting argument that the government, with its socio-economic and political policies, can only do that much. One may not agree with Vance’s conclusion (that change will only start when hillbillies stop blaming “Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better”), since broader forces such as globalisation have had ramifications on these communities. Focusing on the agency of these hillbillies, however, he is convinced that “We created [these problems], and only we can fix them”, though the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Especially in the context of the Trump presidency and the divide between the urban and rural communities, this memoir is a powerful read, and should create impetus for further awareness and action.