Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir about J.D. Vance’s life as he grew up in the rust-belt of the American Midwest. Born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio, Mr. Vance describes the neglect and abuse he experienced as a poor hillbilly and what his journey of upward mobility looked like. Upward mobility for Mr. Vance wasn’t just about becoming a United States Marine and graduating from Yale Law…Mr Vance delves into the most prominent upward mobility of all- how he had to learn to navigate relationships in a healthy manner.
This book was recommended to me by a friend I grew up with in a town eerily similar to Mr. Vance’s hillbilly hometown. My friend mentioned how much the story resonated with her and thought I would appreciate the insight of someone who “got out” like we did. She and I both left our small town of Covington, Georgia immediately upon graduating high school. I joined the Marines and she went to college in Atlanta. Once I started reading this book, I realized how I had never heard a story that echoed my own upbringing so closely. Hillbilly Elegy is a tribute to every traumatized poor white child who didn’t know what a good family dynamic was supposed to look at. It is a tribute to every child who did get out. It is also the emotional side of the economical story that Mr. Andrew Yang wrote in his book The War on Normal People (my book review here.)
Mr. Vance also doesn’t shy from explaining why he is focusing on his poor white upbringing. He doesn’t discount all of the trauma that poor POC experience. Instead, he explains that this is simply the story he chose to share because he experienced it. He can only speak to his story and to the specifics with the poor whites that he saw.
The images he painted of uneducated, lazy, unhealthy, and poor whites is balanced with the love he has for his own troubled family. The dichotomy of loving something that traumatized him so deeply is well-explained…or perhaps only well-explained because I relate so well to it. It is hard to accept that we love something so flawed, and something so toxic that we don’t understand how toxic it is until we leave it. So much of this book hurt to read, but it felt nice to hear a lot of what I thought I was alone in experiencing.
I strongly suggest anyone who has made it out of their hillbilly hometown read this book. Think of your own upward mobility journey and be thankful you got out. And give yourself grace as you are probably still trying to break your own cycles of abuse.
And for those who still live there…reading this book might be the push you need to leave, even if you just leave metaphorically.