Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D Vance

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D Vance

If you’re looking to understand the generational culture and thinking of poor white Americans in the age of Trump, then portions of this book will provide fascinating reading.

There’s plenty to learn here, and I’ve bower-birded some sections below, but unfortunately, Vance’s memoir lost me as he moved onto describing his life after leaving Ohio. I hate to write this, because I really wanted to like this book, but I can’t reconcile the myopia of the wide-eyed American exceptionalist  I found in the second half of the book, with the often astute social observer I met in the first.

For someone who has, ‘always been an American history buff…’, Vance displays a truly stunning, possibly willful ignorance of the impact of American history outside his direct experience.  I longed for him to connect his experiences to those within and outside the United States who’ve suffered through the rough end of the ‘American Dream’. But if he were to bring in that perspective, it would undercut and complicate his allegiance to the flag and the conservative values his story reinforces. Vance is not prepared to do that. So in the second half of the book, he gives us the now familiar American narrative of personal responsibility and redemption, hog tied to an unwavering belief in America Inc. It’s a real shame.

As I read on, I kept thinking, ‘this bloke is positioning himself for public office.’ And good luck to him – there’s much to laud in his memoir – but this kind of public office primer is a ghastly genre. The narrative inevitably suffers from excessive censorship, takes on the ballast of certainty, and no one gets out alive with anything resembling their messy, complex, three-dimensional selves.

I’d sooner steer you towards, Deer Hunting with Jesus.

Here’s what the bower bird collected:

pp58-9 on the difference between intelligence and knowledge.

‘Alongside these conflicting norms about the value of blue-collar work existed a massive ignorance about how to achieve white-collar work. We didn’t know that all across the country – and even in our hometown – other kids had already started a competition to get ahead in life. During first grade, we played a game every morning: The teacher would announce the number of the day, and we’d go person by person and announce a math equation that produced the number. So if the number of the day was four, you could announce “two plus two” and claim a price, usually a small piece of candy. One day the number was thirty. The students in front of me went through the easy answers – “twenty-nine plus one,” “twenty-eight plus two,” “fifteen plus fifteen.” I was better than that. I was going to blow the teacher away.

When my turn came, I proudly announced, “fifty minus twenty.” The teacher gushed, and I received two pieces of candy for my foray into subtraction, a skill we’d learned only days before. A few moments later, while I beamed over my brilliance, another student announced, “Ten times.” I had no idea what that even meant. Times? Who was this guy?

The teacher was even more impressed, and my competitor triumphantly collected not two but three pieces of candy. The teacher spoke briefly of multiplication and asked if anyone else know such a thing existed. None of us raised a hand. For my part, I was crushed. I returned home and burst into tears. I was certain my ignorance was rooted in some failure of character. I just felt stupid. 

It wasn’t my fault that until that day I had never heard the word “multiplication.” It wasn’t something I’d learned in school, and my family didn’t sit around sit around and work on math problems. But to a little kid who wanted to do well in school, it was a crushing defeat. In my immature brain, I didn’t understand the difference between intelligence and knowledge. So I assumed I was an idiot.’

J.D returns home and his Papaw turns heartbreak to triumph by teaching him multiplication and division and providing him with a library card.

p60 – the first of many takes on family and personal responsibility

‘In other words, despite all of the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me.’


‘…it made little sense for a rural Ohio family with a combined income of over a hundred thousand dollars to struggle with money. But fight they did, because they bought things they didn’t need – new cars, new trucks, a swimming pool. By the time their short marriage fell apart, they were tens of thousands of dollars in debt, with nothing to show for it.’

pp126-127 on education

‘I remember watching an episode of The West Wing about education in America, which for the majority of people rightfully believe is the key to opportunity. In it, the fictional president debates whether he should push school vouchers (giving public money to schoolchildren so that they escape failing public schools) or instead focus extensively on fixing those same failing schools. That debate is important, of course – for a long time, much of my failing school district qualified for vouchers – but it was striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.” 

I don’t know what happened the day after Mom and I escaped Ken’s to Mamaw’s for the night. maybe I had a test that I wasn’t able to study for. Maybe I had a homework assignment due that I never had the time to complete. What I do know is that I was a sophomore in high school, and I was miserable. The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget – this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity.


p 140 – Why did Appalachia and the South turn from red to blue states.

‘…a perception that, as one man put it, the government was “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!’

pp142-3 – on generational trauma

‘There was no end in sight. Mamaw had though she escaped the poverty of the hills, but the poverty – emotional, if not financial – had followed her.’

‘I was unable to answer these questions in a way that didn’t implicate something deep within the place I called home.’

pp 144-45

‘Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? ..Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.’


‘We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese.’

p189 – on Post Empire Blues

‘As a culture we had no heroes. Certainly not any politician…We loved the military but had no George S Patton. The space program, long a source of pride, had gone the way of the dodo, and with it the celebrity astronauts. Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream – a steady wage.’


p189 – Dear God help us.

‘I choke up when I hear Lee Greenwood’s cheesy Anthem “Proud to be an American”. [Hint: it’s called “God Bless The USA” ]

p192 – on the ‘lamestream media’

‘With little trust in the press, there’s no check on the Internet conspiracy theories that rule the digital world.’

p 214 – on relationships in a market economy….

‘The networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value.’

p 242 – policy prescriptions

  • legislation – social services should widen the definition of family to include those outside the immediate circle in order to keep kids out of state care.
  • integrate low, middle and upper-class kids in education centres to stop social isolation

p246 – A strong observation

‘I’ve learned that the very traits that enabled my survival during childhood inhibit my success as an adult.’  [fight or flight responses.]

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