Hillbilly Elegy

This is a memoir by J.D. Vance who grew up poor in Ohio, with family originally from the Appalachia area of Tennessee. In short, he had a pretty shitty childhood involving a revolving door of step-fathers.  He joined the marines after high school, then graduated from Ohio State, and went on to Yale Law School. I feel like this book was well-timed and in vogue during the 2016 election, in terms of people trying to understand the “ignored” rural, poor whites. However, that is not actually the purpose of this book (as far as I can tell) and anyone turned off at the thought of a political discourse should not be dissuaded from reading it. While he recounts memories that touch on political topics, such as family and neighbors on welfare, he doesn’t actually discuss politics. I think I was 2/3 done with the book before I realized he was conservative. This surprised me given his more or less admittance that he survived as a child, in part, because of welfare.

In general, I related a lot to this book as someone who grew up in a typical ‘blue collar’ family in rural Wisconsin. Unlike the author, I thankfully did not have a traumatic childhood. (Although if you’re looking for a book to give you a little perspective and be grateful for your own childhood, this is definitely it.) But still I observed a lot of similar situations as he did and thought it interesting how we had nearly opposite takeaways.  I got the impression that when he looks back on the rural Midwest and/or Appalachia, he visualizes all those he’s ever met who despite having opportunities in front of them blew it – seemingly out of learned helplessness. Yeah I know some folks like that too. But I’m not really convinced that is a problem exclusive to the poor. I mean, is the middle class adult-child who managed to screw up his life despite all his advantages any less of a hot mess just because his parents are able to support him financially? Instead when I look back on my experiences in the rural Midwest, I recall an awful lot of hardworking people. And (gasp) some of those hardworking people even used various forms of government assistance to help get by . . . yes, while working!

Overall it seemed like Vance tried hard to not write a woe-is-me memoir, but it still left me feeling like I had read a horrible tragedy. Maybe because it hit a little too close to home. I think its a good read and an important addition to the diverse portrait of what it means to be poor in America.

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