Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

I’ve seen this book around a lot, and was a bit curious to read it, but it wasn’t until I read Diana’s review from Ideas on Papyrus that I knew I had to read it. And, I will say, I wasn’t disappointed at all. This book is absolute incredible, and one I could easily recommend anyone read.

Release: June, 2016

Synopsis: (from Goodreads) “From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.”


This book covers extremely serious topics, from drug abuse to child neglect to psychological trauma. It shows the good and bad side of a culture so close to the author’s heart. Having not been raised in this environment, I found it extremely fascinating to understand how a culture worked within America which is so different from the average, middle-class background I had. I like how this book both takes a look at the author’s specific life, as well as academic studies and more basic observations of this subculture in the American south.

For those who haven’t followed my blog for a while, I moved to Ohio a few months ago, and since then I have been noticing that southern feel to the state. Much of Vance’s early years were spent in either Ohio and Kentucky, so it was interesting to have him explain things about the culture here that I have been noticing myself since moving here.

I appreciate how he doesn’t shy away from the bad sides of “hillbilly” culture, as he calls it, but also doesn’t talk about only the negatives either. This culture is fiercely loyal, hardworking, but they also suffer from poverty, and drug/alcohol addiction. It is difficult for them to raise themselves out of poverty, and follow the American dream, and yet Vance himself proves it was possible, mostly because he was lucky, according to him.

His mother was neglectful, moving them in with boyfriend after boyfriend. His grandmother was a tough, but also a surrogate mother. He experienced a tough life, learning how to withdraw when his mother got angry, a trauma he still suffers to this day. Despite his difficult upbringing, he ended up going to college and becoming a lawyer, proving that the American dream is still alive for those who are willing to work hard.

He is extremely honest about everything, and I appreciated that in his writing style.

This book is also a quick read. Six hours on audiobook and about 250 pages. Though it is quite serious, I wouldn’t say the book is depressing, as it looks at the good and bad of each situation.

I’ve read a few autobiographies before, but this one is up there with my favorites. I think it’s important to understand different perspectives, whether you agree with every nuance of the perspective or not.

Have you read this book? Does it look interesting to you? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed this book too. I found it very insightful. As you point out, he did say he was lucky – he had some support, but what I found admirable is that he also drew attention to so many people in the region who were not as lucky as he and who did not have strong and determined grandmothers.

    The other point he makes is that poverty should not be something shameful – it may be the case that it is very hard to escape a “vicious circle” of familial and generational poverty and it does not mean that that particular person has not tried. If awful living conditions, certain perception of the world and little love are everything that a person ever know – how can we expect him or her to change in an instant? I think this book also teaches us not be judgemental and be more accepting towards others since those who “made it” probably were lucky to have that great, loving and loyal team behind them too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could not agree more! Everyone is in very different situations, and we shouldn’t judge a person just because they are poor, just like we shouldn’t judge a person for being able to rise out of poverty. Each person is different. I found this book really good, and I’m so glad I had a chance to read it. Like you said, it offers a perception I don’t know much about.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciated this review. I had some mixed feelings about the book. It was interesting, but I felt like Vance seemed to be arguing that everyone should just rise above poverty. But that doesn’t help without a lot of social support. Did you feel that way too?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmm…I didn’t find he was making that argument. At one point, he even says how lucky he was to be able to get out of poverty, whereas so many impoverished people don’t have his opportunities. But it is interesting how this book stands on the fine line between political commentary and autobiography.


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