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.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and served in Iraq. A graduate of the Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he has contributed to the National Review and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. Vance lives in San Francisco with his wife and two dogs.
Author mail for J.D. Vance can be sent to the below:
P.O. Box 1040
West Chester, OH 45071
…an affectionate yet unflinching look at growing up in social and domestic chaos in southwestern Ohio…Too often, America's longstanding discomfort with talking candidly about social class can make memoirs about hardscrabble upbringings sound like public service announcements. But if Vance is an adroit enough storyteller, he's a fiercely astute social critic of the sort we desperately need right now. Instead of cleaving his narrative to a political or ideological agenda, he wrestles honestly with the messy contradictions inherent to any conversation about race or class. For all his affection and empathy for his hillbilly brethren, he's not afraid to show the ways opportunities can be squandered not just by addiction or systemic failure but also out of laziness or stubbornness.The New York Times Book Review - Meghan Daum
…a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump. Combining thoughtful inquiry with firsthand experience, Mr. Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he's done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans…Whether you agree with Mr. Vance or not, you must admire him for his head-on confrontation with a taboo subject. And he frames his critique generously, stipulating that it isn't laziness that's destroying hillbilly culture but what the psychologist Martin Seligman calls "learned helplessness"the fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.The New York Times - Jennifer Senior
In this compelling hybrid of memoir and sociological analysis, Vance digs deep into his upbringing in the hills of Jackson, Ky., and the suburban enclave of Middletown, Ohio. He chronicles with affection—and raw candor—the foibles, shortcomings, and virtues of his family and their own attempts to live their lives as working-class people in a middle-class world. Readers get to know his tough-as-nails grandmother, Mawmaw, who almost killed a man when she was 12 in Jackson, but who has to live among the sewing circles of Middletown. Her love for children, and for her grandson in particular, fuels her dream to become a children's attorney. When Vance finishes high school, he's not ready to head off to Ohio State, so Vance joins the Marines, completes a tour of duty in Iraq, and returns home with a surer sense of what he wants out of life and how to get it. He eventually enrolls in Yale Law School and becomes a successful lawyer, doggedly reflecting on the keys to his own success—family and community—and the ways they might help him understand the issues at stake in social policies today. Vance observes that hillbillies like himself are helped not by government policy but by community that empowers them and extended family who encourages them to take control of their own destinies. Vance's dynamic memoir takes a serious look at class. (June)
Vance movingly recounts the travails of his family.Washington Post
[Hillbilly Elegy] is a beautiful memoir but it is equally a work of cultural criticism about white working-class America….[Vance] offers a compelling explanation for why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to make it…a riveting book.Wall Street Journal
[Hillbilly Elegy] couldn’t have been better timed...a harrowing portrait of much that has gone wrong in America over the past two generations...an honest look at the dysfunction that afflicts too many working-class Americans.National Review
Vance compellingly describes the terrible toll that alcoholism, drug abuse, and an unrelenting code of honor took on his family, neither excusing the behavior nor condemning it…The portrait that emerges is a complex one…Unerringly forthright, remarkably insightful, and refreshingly focused, Hillbilly Elegy is the cry of a community in crisis.Booklist
J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy”, offers a starkly honest look at what that shattering of faith feels like for a family who lived through it. You will not read a more important book about America this year.The Economist
[A] frank, unsentimental, harrowing memoir...a superb book...New York Post
The troubles of the working poor are well known to policymakers, but Vance offers an insider’s view of the problem.Christianity Today
What explains the appeal of Donald Trump? Many pundits have tried to answer this question and fallen short. But J.D. Vance nails it...stunning...intimate...Globe and Mail (Toronto)
[A] compassionate, discerning sociological analysis…Combining thoughtful inquiry with firsthand experience, Mr. Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he’s done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans. Imagine that.Jennifer Senior
[Vance’s] description of the culture he grew up in is essential reading for this moment in history.David Brooks
A beautifully and powerfully written memoir about the author’s journey from a troubled, addiction-torn Appalachian family to Yale Law School, Hillbilly Elegy is shocking, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and hysterically funny. It’s also a profoundly important book, one that opens a window on a part of America usually hidden from view and offers genuine hope in the form of hard-hitting honesty. Hillbilly Elegy announces the arrival of a gifted and utterly original new writer and should be required reading for everyone who cares about what’s really happening in America.Amy Chua
To understand the rage and disaffection of America’s working-class whites, look to Greater Appalachia. In HILLBILLY ELEGY, J.D. Vance confronts us with the economic and spiritual travails of this forgotten corner of our country. Here we find women and men who dearly love their country, yet who feel powerless as their way of life is devastated. Never before have I read a memoir so powerful, and so necessary.Reihan Salam
Elites tend to see our social crisis in terms of ‘stagnation’ or ‘inequality.’ J. D. Vance writes powerfully about the real people who are kept out of sight by academic abstractions.Peter Thiel
[A]n American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read… [T]he most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance.Rod Dreher
[A] new memoir that should be read far and wide.Institute of Family Studies
Growing up in Appalachia may leave a person open to harsh criticism and stereotype, yet Vance delves into his childhood and upbringing to make a clear distinction between perception and reality. Born in Kentucky and shuffling among homes in Ohio, the author ended the cycle of poverty, abuse, and drug use after becoming a U.S. Marine and Yale Law School graduate. His memoir is less about his triumph and more about exposing the gritty truth of how a culture fell into ruin. Using examples from his own life with references to articles and studies throughout, Vance's intent is to show that what was once the fulfillment of the American Dream—moving to the Rust Belt for a better life—has now left families in peril. His plea is not for sympathy but for understanding. Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, this memoir is akin to investigative journalism. While some characters seem too caricaturelike, it is often those terrifyingly authentic traits that make people memorable. Vance is careful to point out that this is his recollection of events; not everyone is painted in a positive light. VERDICT A quick and engaging read, this book is well suited to anyone interested in a study of modern America, as Vance's assertions about Appalachia are far more reaching.—Kaitlin Malixi, formerly at Virginia Beach P.L.
★ 2016-04-30Kirkus Reviews
A Yale Law School graduate's account of his traumatic hillbilly childhood and the plight of America's angry white working class. "Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash," writes Vance, a biotech executive and National Review contributor. "I call them neighbors, friends, and family." In this understated, engaging debut, the author reflects on his stormy journey from the coal-country Kentucky hollers of Appalachia to the declining Rust Belt to life among the Ivy League-educated elite. Born into a poor Scots-Irish family—with a pill-addicted mother and "revolving door of father figures"—Vance was raised in Ohio by his beloved and newly middle-class grandparents, hardworking believers in the American dream who married in their teens and never shook the trappings (abuse, addiction, and constant fighting and screaming) of their native Kentucky's hillbilly culture. Mamaw, his grandmother, once set her husband on fire when he came home drunk; Papaw, a violent grouch, tossed a Christmas tree out the back door. In scenes at once harrowing and hilarious, we come to know these loud, rowdy gun-toters as the loyal and loving family whose encouragement helped the author endure "decades of chaos and heartbreak." In the Marines and at Yale, Vance learned to make responsible adult choices and overcame the learned helplessness that characterizes many in the working class. Pointedly identifying the cynicism and willingness to blame others endemic among that class, he describes the complex malaise—involving sociology, psychology, community, culture, and faith—that has left so many bereft of connections and social support and unable to find high-quality work. The solution, he believes, is not government action but in people asking themselves "what we can do to make things better." Declaring that he survived with the help of caring family and friends, he writes, "I am one lucky son of a bitch." An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.