Hillbilly Elegy, my book club’s pick for the month of June, is J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up poor and white in Ohio, in the heart of the collapsing Rust Belt of America.
Vance compares his familial story with a larger cultural issue at work in middle America, the decline of the white working class. A hillbilly among hillbillies, Vance grew up in poverty, with an unstable addiction-prone mother and a multitude of ever-disappearing father figures, within a family where loyalty was fierce and volatile, where every meal was fast food and struggling at school was a given. Despite these early challenges, and with an acknowledgment that his path isn’t the norm within the culture, Vance (now 32) enlisted in the Marines, attended college, and graduated from Yale Law School.
My reaction to the book is mixed. Hillbilly Elegy is definitely readable and Vance’s story is an engaging one. More memoir than sociological study, the mash-up leaves little room for a deep dig into the big issues – class disparity, the drug addiction epidemic, the failing education system, the disillusionment of the American Dream. While Vance makes a case for class divide limiting the opportunities available to Middle America, it can’t be ignored that the author, a white cis Republican male, and the hillbillies with whom he identifies, benefit from a system of white privilege that protects their white bodies every day and affords them more opportunities and higher paychecks than the multitude of others in America today.