Reading guide for Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

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Hillbilly Elegy

A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance X
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2016, 272 pages
    May 2018, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

• What is Jackson, Kentucky like? Why does Vance have such an affection for the place?

• Class disloyalty is something Vance's grandmother, Mamaw, dislikes. How does she define class disloyalty?

• Why does Vance revere the Blanton men? What are they like, and why does Vance find them so appealing?

• What are some of the contradictions apparent in Jackson, Kentucky? How do these contradictions shape the town?

• What are Vance's grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, like?

• How did Vance's grandparents get to Ohio? What are the two versions of the story of how and why they moved out of Kentucky?

• In this chapter, we learn about the migration of people out of Appalachia in search of jobs. What does this migration do for communities?

• In what ways to Vance's grandparents adapt, and not adapt, to their new life in Ohio? Do they see these changes positively or negatively?

• What are the ways in which Mamaw and Papaw lead two lives? Why is there such a split?

• In addition to class disloyalty, Mamaw also strongly dislikes disloyalty as a more general practice. Why does she dislike it so much? Or, conversely, why does she think loyalty is so important?

• In what ways do Mamaw and Papaw try to correct past mistakes they made? Do you think they end up correcting them?

• Are you surprised at the kinds of violence that Vance encounters at home? Do you think the family themselves consider some of their behaviors violent?

• Compared to Jackson, Kentucky what is Middletown, Ohio like? In what ways is it similar? And in what ways is it different?

• Why did Middletown experience an economic decline?

• What are some ways in which there are conflicts in attitudes towards work among the people of Middletown?

• If the American Dream does require forward momentum, could the people of Middletown achieve it?

• How do Mamaw's views on fighting evolve? Why do you think they change?

• What are the circumstances surrounding Vance's adoption?

• In spite of their shared love of books and learning, and the nurturing relationship they seem to have, Vance's relationship with his mother begins to change. What is the catalyst for this change, and what is its outcome so far?

• Describe the kind of relationship that Vance and his sister Lindsay have. • What are the various ways in which this chapter discusses religion? Is religion something that is important to Vance?

• In what ways is the absence of a father figure significant to the ways in which Vance constructs and learns masculinity?

• When Vance reconnects with his biological father, he learns his side of the story surrounding his adoption. How does hearing his account change J.D.'s views? Do you think Vance manages to forgive his biological father?

• Does religion become a grounding force for Vance? If so, how? CHAPTER 7 • How big of a gap does Papaw's death leave in the family? How do different members of the family react to his death?

• On page 104, Vance talks about his and his sister Lindsay's shared fear of imposing on other people. How do Vance and his sister think of themselves as burdens? Are they in any way justified thinking of themselves that way?

• Vance's family goes through another reconfiguration when his mother enters rehab. Are you surprised at how Vance and Lindsay adapt?

• What are the ways in this chapter in which Vance's home life becomes more tumultuous?

• This chapter talks in some detail about education reform to help kids in poor Appalachia communities. How do you fix the issues in these school systems when the problems these kids face also stem from their lives at home?

• How do you think not being able to feel like you can drop your guard feels? What would that be like for Vance and his sister?

• How does living with Mamaw help Vance understand her better? How does he get to know her in ways he didn't previously?

• Working at the grocery store, Vance is exposed to how class difference and work ethic manifests itself in Middletown. The kinds of contradictions he brings up in Chapter 4 are evident here. Do you think Vance is justified in the anger he feels at what he sees?

• In what ways is the eternal hope Vance feels for his mother a series of complex emotions? Given the trajectory of their relationship, would you also feel hopeful if you were in Vance's position?

• Living with Mamaw gives Vance a chance at a stable home life. Do you think this stability is what manages to change Vance's life around? Why or why not?

• How self-aware is Vance when he decides he isn't ready for college? Are you surprised by that amount of self-awareness from him?

• In what ways does the family split anew following Mamaw's death?

• How does the Marine Corps change Vance? What does it teach him?

• What is Vance's experience like in college? How is it similar and different to his peers?

• From Vance's analysis, why are people in places like Middletown, Ohio so distrustful of contemporary America?

• In what ways does the media and internet feed into the anxieties of the people of Middletown? • How do these perceptions and views feed into attitudes towards government and aspects of American society?

• What is critique of modern conservativism does Vance offer? Do you agree with how he formed his theory?

• In what ways does being at Yale Law challenge Vance's identity?

• How does life at Yale make Vance more appreciative of his background and where he comes from in some ways?

• We learn of an incident at a gas station where Vance lies to a woman about not going to Yale. Is his lie an example of protecting against the class disloyalty Mamaw despised so much? Why or why not?

• How is seeing social mobility as a lifestyle change, in addition to a change in money and economics, significant? How does that recontextualize how we think about social mobility?

• How did Vance's experience during FIP highlight his class difference from his peers?

• What is social capital? In what ways did social capital come to help Vance?

• From what you know of Vance's life, what kind of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) did he have?

• How would you describe Vance and Usha's relationship? What kinds of behaviors does Vance notice in his relationship that he traces back to his upbringing? What kinds of things does he want to change?

• On page 231, Vance talks about the difference between personal choice and cultural inheritance. How do you distinguish between actions and reactions based on personal choice versus cultural inheritance?

• Do you think Vance has come to terms with his feelings for his mother? Or do you think his feelings for and about her will constantly evolve?

• What is the "uneasy truce" Vance strikes in caring for his mother?

• When J.D. and Usha get married, they both change their last name to Vance. Why is the change significant for both of them?

• What public policy lessons does Vance outline from his experiences? How could they help the hillbilly community?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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