Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. VanceA hillbilly by common definition is a ‘backwoods person,’ someone a bit removed from mainstream society who has a slightly different value structure and way of life. The term is pejorative, most frequently used as an insult but sometimes, and in the case of this book, used less as insult and more as a way to embrace an alternative identity. In writing about this community, Vance looks at his experiences growing up in a poor town in Ohio’s Rust Belt and what it was like to leave it behind to seek out greater opportunities to build a better life for himself. Throughout his narrative, he explores what motivated him to escape the cycles of addiction, abuse, and hardship that previous generations in his family went through.

Vance mostly writes respectfully and appreciatively about the community he left behind. The title implies that this book may be a lament for something that has passed away, but the writer is giving a nostalgic reflection more than he is grieving for a dead culture. In his eyes, this culture is wounded, but not mortally. Not yet. Throughout the memoir, it is revealed that hillbilly culture isn’t gone, but shifting – undergoing a decline largely brought on by socioeconomic factors and personal choices. The crisis Vance writes about is a complicated one, born of bad decisions and dead ends. It comes from factories closing and jobs moving elsewhere, poverty, poor healthcare, and schools not expecting their students to achieve great things and preparing them for futures in local industries that have already left the region. The crisis is created by a love of a culture that clings to its history, tradition, and its resiliency, but isn’t quick to accept outsiders or embrace changes. The crisis Vance explores draws from what he experienced growing up and what he saw happening within his own family. While he occasionally considers the larger region, the primary focus is not on Appalachia as a whole or the trends and events that are shaping the culture. This is a memoir and it is personal.

Vance writes specifically about the town he grew up and the region his grandparents hailed from. However, his town seems to represent any small town in Appalachia that doesn’t have enough steady work, strong schools, access to resources and support, or opportunity. As such, an interesting view into small-town struggles is presented in this memoir, one that may be revealing for readers anywhere. One doesn’t need to be from Appalachia or a small run-down town to appreciate and connect with the narrative Vance shares. However, if you’re looking for solutions to the cultural and socioeconomic hardships rural towns are currently facing or a larger perspective on the effects of poverty and isolation, this book won’t do it for you. Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis provides a limited look into a larger region and some of the problems its people face, focusing instead on the personal experience.

Kelly Jones is the Library’s Mobile Café Driver and can be reached at kjones@alamancelibraries.org.