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From Appalachia to Yale Law: ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Delivers Searingly Honest Memoir of Upward Mobility

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

Thorndike Press, 2016

By J.D. Vance

You may want to buckle up before plunging into this memoir. Cuz it’s a doozy. It’s also an eye-opener worth the plunge.

“To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart” explains the author in the Introduction. He grew up poor, in the “Rust Belt,” in an Ohio steel town that “has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” But he graduated from Yale Law. That’s a pretty compelling story any way you slice it. So I’d listen up ‘fize you. Like this:

Searingly Honest

Set in Appalachian Kentucky and Ohio, the first part of this searingly honest book feels like a root canal without Novocain. Or a presidential debate. Which is almost the same thing. At any rate, initial chapters chronicle the author’s complicated family relationships. “Tumultuous” and “turbulent” are understatement.

Vance’s childhood is rife with domestic strife. Screaming and shoving matches between spouses. Brushes with the law and CPS. Drug and alcohol abuse. An unstable, multi-divorced mom who’s in and out of rehab. “Father figures” who spin in and out of J.D.’s life like revolving cars on a carnival Tilt-a-Whirl.

With a family life as stable as a bowlful of Jell-O, the author almost flunks out of high school. He also describes how, as the manufacturing center of the Midwest has hollowed out, economic insecurity and the unstable home and family life has beset the white working class. Indeed, most of J.D.’s family never graduated from high school. But he went on to not only graduate from Ohio State University but Yale Law School, too.

How did that happen?

How did a hillbilly kid from Appalachian Kentucky beat the odds? That’s the salient question upon which the entire narrative hinges.

Family loyalty plays a big part in the equation. For example, J.D.’s maternal grandparents took him under their wing when his home life with his drug-addicted mom fell apart. Profane and uneducated, his Mama (“ma’am-aw”) was nevertheless a force of nature, with an endless well of love and support for J.D. She was also intensely loyal. You do not want to mess with Mama’s kin. Unless you have a death wish.

‘From the Halls of Montezuma…’

There’s another factor in Vance’s road to success. A big one. What straightened the confused, awkward, socially isolated kid out? Taught him to live like an adult? Balance a checkbook? Understand that choices do matter? See chapter 10. Here’s a hint. It goes like this: From the Halls of Montezuma…”

Writes Vance:

“It was the Marine Corps that first gave me the opportunity to truly fail, made me take that opportunity, and then, when I did fail, gave me another chance anyway.” (p. 255).

In was the U.S. Marine Corps that taught J.D. that “leadership depended far more on earning the respect of your subordinates than on bossing them around.” The Marine Corps is where he “discovered how to earn that respect.” (p. 254).

Ohio State

After four years with the Marines, J.D. enrolls in Ohio State. He later learns about the power of “social capital” while navigating the often-labyrinthian maze of Yale Law school. Vance also describes how, as an Appalachian hillbilly, jumping into the Ivy Leagues felt like hitchhiking to an alien planet. And how the culture he grew up in left him totally unprepared for success. Like how not knowing a lot of things that many others do – like what to wear to a job interview – “has serious economic consequences.” He notes:

Mamaw resented the hillbilly stereotype – that our people were a bunch of slobbering morons. But that fact is that I was remarkably ignorant of how to get ahead. (p. 319)

Credit & Insights

Vance takes pains to credit those who helped him through law school and elsewhere. He graduated from Yale Law and eventually landed a plum judicial clerking job in Kentucky.

Along the way, J.D. imparts some valuable insights that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. Like:

  • The country’s social services aren’t made for hillbilly families, don’t understand hillbilly families, “and they often make a bad problem worse.” (p. 350).
  • The importance of a stable home and family life: “The most important lesson of my life is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities… the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control… the reality for so many of these kids is what happens (or doesn’t happen) at home.” (p. 350. 352).

“These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else,” writes J.D. on page 367. “We created them, and only we can fix them.” He continues, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we do to make things better. (p. 36.)

Bottom Line

To non-Appalachians, Hillbilly Elegy will be hard – if not impossible – to fully understand. Nevertheless, it is a powerful, poignant memoir about a demographic that is too often misunderstood and ignored. This memoir is a valiant effort at eliminating both.

Mom and Kimber’s Score: 3.0.

Clarifies Kimber: We would’ve scored this higher if the author cleaned up his lingo. Dude. You coulda earned another full point if you’d dial back on the foul mouth. Get some soap next time. Just barkin’.

For more on our rating system, click here.

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