I was a little late to the Hillbilly Elegy party. Maybe it comes from being a STEM major and having your head so buried in mathematics and science. Maybe it is because I go to school in literally the middle of no where. I don’t know, but for whatever reason I was late to the party and a million other reviews of this book have been published. And even though this book has been hotly debated, praised, and criticized it really is worth adding my two-cents into the online discourse surrounding this book. Ever since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, people have hotly debated the reasons behind the rallying of the white working class to President-elect Trump. Thought-piece after thought-piece has been written about how a notoriously blue-voting demographic could suddenly switch to the red and while Vance does not fully explain this, I don’t think that any one can this soon after such a landmark event, he does unpack some of the reasons the white working-class acts, feels, and votes the way it does and did.
Utilizing his personal narrative of growing up in a poor working-class family in the Rust Belt of Ohio, Vance probes into the very frighting realities that come with the upward mobility that is so desired and praised in American life. Expertly, Vance points out that very rarely does a person raise themselves out of abject poverty to prosperity without a generation or two laying the foundation. That generation, Vance shows through his narrative, is often full of the vices that make up the white working-class: drug abuse, alcoholism, mismanaged finances.
It is noteworthy that Vance does not seek to comment on a group of people that he does not know. He comments only on the poor, white working-class with ties to Appalachia because this is the demographic that he has known his whole life. I suppose this is why this book was so powerful to me. Vance speaks of spending every summer in Jackson, Kentucky which is a small Eastern Kentucky town about an hour from where I live. It is the quintessential example of everything that is currently going on in Eastern Kentucky and, naturally, a perfect extension of what I see in my hometown. The struggles faced by Eastern Kentucky residences are far beyond this scope of this post as they are lengthy and incredibly nuanced but Vance manages to explain them beautifully and simply in his book.
Hillbilly Elegy is also unbiased in its criticism. Going into this book, I was sure that Vance was going to paint the poor white-working class as innocent victims of cruel political and social games. That assumption was quickly proven false. In his introduction alone, Vance explains the fundamental disconnect between the perception of the white-working class when it comes to jobs and the realities of their situation. He then spends the rest of the book exploring how the Appalachian idea of manhood has left much of the working-class at a horrible disadvantage. But his criticism is not without praise as he acknowledges the traditions that make their society so beautiful despite its flaws.
Vance also delves into a series of critiques against politicians. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are safe from his criticisms. These missteps, he points out, more often than not come from a severe disconnect between the political class and the white-working class. What I admired most is that Vance does not claim to be impartial in his delivery. Instead he explains that he is a political insider, a Republican, and a highly opinionated individual. He does seek to be academic and he succeeds.
You will notice there is a lack of quotations that are so characteristic of my book reviews. I like to include snippets of the book so that you, my readers, can understand the authors voice and purpose. Here I omitted this not because Hillbilly Elegy is “unquotable” but because it so is. In writing this review, I tried to find the best lines from Vance’s work but every line rings with such fearless honesty that I really could not choose. That is one of the many reasons I believe Hillbilly Elegy will quickly become a classic. In years to come, when we truly and objectively strive to make sense of the multitude of events that ultimately culminated in the election of Donald Trump I believe Hillbilly Elegy will stand as a shining example of a compassionate, fearless look at those events.
Bottom line: Hillbilly Elegy is a must-read for anyone interested in politics, social class, and the American Dream. If you haven’t read it yet, please don’t let all the hype keep you from doing so.