Hillbilly Elegy (2016) by J.D. Vance has over 10,000 reviews and four and a half stars on Amazon. It’s on NPR’s Best Books of 2016 list, and was also a book we read in book club. The Economist said “You will not read a more important book this year,” and the New York Times called it “essential reading.” I may be in the minority with this opinion, but I didn’t love it. Although parts of Vance’s life were certainly interesting, it wasn’t what I expected and I found some of it off putting.
J.D. Vance grew up in Ohio. His grandparents had moved there from Kentucky, and he continued to visit there during the summer. His mother was an addict, which led to something of a traumatic and unstable childhood. Fortunately, his grandparents were around and did much of the raising. He joined the marines after high school and went on to go to college and finally Yale Law School.
I was expecting a deep look into Appalachia, it’s culture and people–perhaps a comprehensive analysis of what life is like and how standards of living could be improved. However, Vance’s only attachment to Appalachia was his occasional summers there, and his only knowledge stems from the interactions with his family. He did little, if any, research on what I thought was his subject matter, and I did not learn very much about the area.
I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to grow up with a drug addict for a mom. It is impressive that Vance was able to make a success of himself. However, I still don’t see how his experiences relate to Appalachia. There are drug addicts everywhere, in many areas, and in all social classes. Breaking Night by Liz Murray is a much more harrowing and personal story of dealing with addict parents. But it was when Vance got to law school that I really started feeling annoyed. He griped about how difficult it was to be at law school and not understand the interview culture or what spoon to use. Seriously? I grew up in a stable, middle class home and I had no idea what was happening when I went to law school. I didn’t even know what a clerkship was, let alone that it was the job I was supposed to be looking for after my first year–and that these were unpaid positions, perfect if you didn’t ever need to earn money.
I started finding Vance’s writing as self important. He seemed to brag about not shaking the Ohio State’s president’s hand at his graduation, and I couldn’t understand why he thought that was important to include in his story. “I may have been the only graduating student that day to not shake his hand.” (187) Vance writes as if he has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. His graduation from Yale Law School was that undeniable token of success, and he wanted to make sure we all understood that he made it.
At times, Vance would show some empathy towards those around him and back in Appalachia who were stuck in their circumstances.
“Surrounding me was another message: that I and the people like me weren’t good enough; that the reason Middletown produced zero Ivy League graduates was some genetic or character defect. I couldn’t possibly see how destructive that mentality was until I escaped it.” (176)
“Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness’ when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life.” (163)
And then he would say that they were also lazy and not working hard enough. Not only was he inconsistent, but he never even tried to give a thorough history or discuss the systemic causes of poverty in Ohio or Kentucky. He also did not present any ideas that might potentially help. This book left a bad taste in my mouth, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was bothering me. And then I went to the one-star reviews on Amazon, and most of them eloquently expressed what I had been feeling but unable to express. I’m afraid this is the occasion of a book that was over-hyped.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.