Novel and Notable: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

"Ohio" - Photo courtesy of Google Images

"Ohio" - Photo courtesy of Google Images

Hillbilly Elegy, written by J.D. Vance, received an extensive amount of press in 2016. A review published that year in The Economist notes, “You will not read a more important book about America.” Now, in 2017, more than a year after its June publication, it remains firmly grounded on The New York Times bestsellers list. A list it has called home for the past 56 weeks. Some contribute the memoir’s success to good timing, but if the 2016 presidential election was any indication, there is very little luck involved in the novel’s success. Rather, the author, like many of his white poverty-stricken peers, identified the lack of a certain narrative in the American canon and noted an abundance of voices screaming to be heard.

The novel tells the story of Vance’s self-proclaimed hillbilly culture and his family’s place within it. The hillbillies described in the memoir are a very specific subset of America's poor population: white. Vance’s Appalachian family flocked to rust-belt Middletown, Ohio to work for Armco steel. His grandpa lovingly called Papaw, joined the mass exodus of his peers moving North for industrial work. The patriarch transplanted the family in the hopes of escaping the cyclical poverty of his Appalachian home. And though his job mostly allowed the family access to middle-class luxuries: they were not immune from hillbilly culture and the poverty prevalent in the town. Hillbilly culture is one that Vance catalogs as both beautiful and toxic. One in which there is a heavy emphasis on family, hard work, and patriotism. Hillbillies are proud.

Vance’s upbringing is not uncommon. However, his course diverges from many of his hillbilly peers in its upward mobility. Thanks to the structure and strong-will of his grandma, or Mamaw, Vance survived the effects of a chaotic childhood. His father left the family when he was young and his mother was absent for many years of his life. Unable to properly care for her son due to an addiction to painkillers and heroin, Vance was often forced to care for his mother while Mamaw cared for him. His mother tried to give him a father figure though, in fact he had fifteen different “stepdads” throughout his childhood as his mother cycled through one toxic relationship after another. Eventually, Vance permanently left his mother’s home to live with his grandma: a decision that set the course of his life.

Mamow was a raucous women whose strength and spunk kept Vance driven. Managing to stay on track and graduate, he joined the Marines and served in Iraq. The army provided him with the stability he had lacked in his childhood and was a transformative experience for him. It helped expose the boy from small-town Ohio to great diversity. After the Marines, Vance attended Ohio State University and eventually Yale Law School. However, it wasn’t until Yale that the true evidence of his new-found class mobility became strikingly apparent. His peers at the school were from mostly affluent backgrounds and through comical and raw anecdotes, Vance makes clear straddling the class gap is no easy task.

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Now, Vance lives in San Francisco and works at Mithril Capital Management. Against all odds, he made a life for himself outside of the culture and town where he was raised. And although he left, his culture is one that is so pervasive he notes that he will take its lessons with him forever. In the book, Vance frequently uses the pronoun “our” to make clear that he is one of and therefore allowed to acknowledge the community's shortcomings with the same earnestness with which he addresses his own. This makes for a thoughtful narrative rare in its ability to view hillbilly culture as both an insider and outsider. Though the text is clearly infused with hillbilly pride, Vance offers honest critiques of his upbringing.

What emerges from the text is a culture of countless contradictions. He calls it a “cognitive dissonance, a broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.” If family is so important, then why do so many parents neglect the care of their children and participate in the abuse of a spouse? If working hard is so important then why did his neighbor quit his job to receive welfare? If the lady at the grocery store is using food stamps to purchase her food why and how does she own the latest version of the iPhone? So while Vance attributes some of his community's problems to economic disadvantage, he also acknowledges: “There is a lack of agency here, a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.”

Hillbillies are a group of Americans which Vance says have been forgotten. But the group might be better defined by journalist Peggy Noonan who, in her Pulitzer Prize winning column, called Vance’s hillbillies “the unprotected.”

Noonan claims, “There are the protected and the unprotected. The protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully. The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful—those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created.”

Not only is Vance white, he is also conservative. This is the reason his book has drawn mass attention. Not for any real literary breakthrough, but because of the political climate spurred by the 2016 presidential election. The Times named Hillbilly Elegy one of six books to help understand Trump’s win. And though Trump’s name is never mentioned in the book, people see Vance’s story as a testament to the overwhelming support Trump received from rural white America.

Released amidst the chaos of the election, Vance’s words seem undetachable from the political time in which they are being read. Many critics of the book see it as an account for Trump’s rise. A cop out for a shattered America looking to explain and justify a Trump Presidency, a problematic and deeply flawed explanation for the action of a large body politic. A notable review in The Guardian argues that the book helps shed light on the divide between white America, but does not do justice in fully capturing the political turmoil of the time. These critics are correct in stating that this book does not fully capture the political turmoil of the time, but, and this is key, the book never intended to capture the action behind an entire political party.

Hillbilly Elegy has become woefully tied up with the Republican party, instead of with the group of people it intended to serve. Though many of the hillbillies Vance describes are Republican, many Republicans are not hillbillies. It’s simply impossible to read Vance’s novel as a comprehensive explanation for the results of the election. There are gaps in the text. For example it can’t broach beyond the realm of the white experience. But readers continue to misconstrue the text rendering the interpretation of this book so problematic it has become a metaphor for the election itself.

Vance’s book is really about transparency. He plainly presents his life, his people, and the complicated culture that he was raised in. The book certainly doesn’t offer solutions to repair cyclical poverty, nor does it try to soothe a turbulent political climate.

Hillbilly Elegy isn’t a book of answers.

What Vance does offer is a window to a subset of humanity. He invites us into his deeply broken home and through the plainness of his text he simply states his story.


As college students, we have the opportunity to be in an environment where education is at the root of all we do. It is an environment that asks us to question what we know, what we don’t know, and what we believe. It asks us to listen.

Our education must be a lifelong commitment, and one that we fulfill with an eager and gracious pursuit. We are offered myriad examples of the consequences in believing we have all the answers and in believing we know the full story. Through the media, the workplace, every facet of life: we are exposed to the rigid intolerance which invites itself upon a closed mind. This repudiation of education and the pillars on which it stands is not a partisan issue. It is a fundamental defect of all humanity.

Hillbilly Elegy is a must read by the predominantly “protected” student body at the University of Michigan. It needs to be read for exactly what it is: a memoir, not an explanation for a political time or party. Though no literary miracle, the text is emboldened by its honesty. It simply calls the reader to listen.

Kate CammellComment