2016 was a gut-punch of a year. I won’t go into the details, because you’ve all been there, too. But suffice it to say that the spectre of Donald Trump (to paraphrase from Karl Marx) hangs over 2017. I’ve heard a lot about the rural poor white populations who voted him into power, and the need to understand the poor rural white people. In fact, people have been comparing J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me as a powerful memoir of identity, stating that *this* was the memoir you needed to read in the age of Trump. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I also don’t think that pinning Trump’s Electoral College victory or the politics that enabled him to win the Republican primary on masses of white people from Appalachia is entirely accurate, either. It, like this book, deserves much closer study of several moving parts that make up a complex political and cultural landscape.
Vance’s memoir is the story of growing up a self-described hillbilly in rural Kentucky and rural Ohio. He talks about his family, the struggles to succeed, and the circumstances that caused others in his social circle to stagnate, while he succeeded. His growing up is horrifying, much along the lines of Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Juxtaposed in this memoir of horrific poverty is his commentary on what it’s like to be poor and white in rural America, and how social, political, and economic lines are drawn. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, one that deserves further and continued development.
Vance gives an honest and eloquent glimpse into his life as a “hillbilly” and offers insight on the white working class in the United States, particularly in rural areas. I do feel as if there are two separate books merged into one here—Vance offers up his own life, but he also gives enough of a sociological study that becomes frustrating when it is not developed further.
Furthermore, while Coates alludes to a larger problem of police brutality and identity, he manages to be both personal and intimate in a way that’s deeply fitting. I think that Vance tries to accomplish something similar, but I feel that this book tries to be both intimately personal AND a tell-all regarding the white working class. It works sometimes, but not all the time. The insight into the white working class could and should be further developed. I would say that Vance has at least another book’s worth of material. 3.5 stars.
Cross-posted on my blog.