Summary and book reviews of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy

A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
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  • Published:
    Jun 2016, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts

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Book Summary

#1 New York Times Bestseller, named by the Times as one of the "6 books to help understand Trump's win"

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.

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The issues at stake for Vance are not overtly political, but personal. He counts his blessings for the advantages he did have and expresses concern for the plight of those who grow up with even less. He fully admits that "no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America," but this is an excellent place to start for those willing to put aside their prejudices and really listen.   (Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Full Review (742 words).

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Media Reviews

Jennifer Senior, New York Times

[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.

National Review

[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.

Christianity Today

The troubles of the working poor are well known to policymakers, but Vance offers an insider's view of the problem.

The Washington Post

Vance movingly recounts the travails of his family.

Wall Street Journal

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

David Brooks, New York Times

[Vance's] description of the culture he grew up in is essential reading for this moment in history.

The American Conservative

[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.

New York Post

[A] frank, unsentimental, harrowing memoir...a superb book...

Booklist

Unerringly forthright, remarkably insightful, and refreshingly focused, Hillbilly Elegy is the cry of a community in crisis.

Library Journal

Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, this memoir is akin to investigative journalism. … 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.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. [An] understated, engaging debut...An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.

The Economist

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.

Globe and Mail (Canada)

What explains the appeal of Donald Trump? Many pundits have tried to answer this question and fallen short. But J.D. Vance nails it.

Author Blurb Reihan Salam, executive editor, National Review
To understand the rage and disaffection of America's working-class whites, look to Greater Appalachia. In Hillbilly Elergy, 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.

Author Blurb Peter Thiel, entrepreneur, investor, and author of Zero to One
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.

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Beyond the Book

Brain Drain

"Brain Drain," aka "Human Capital Flight" refers to the exodus of educated, professional adults from locations that fail to provide them with the means of achieving success and fulfillment. As a consequence, the communities these individuals leave behind often suffer economic and cultural stagnation. The phrase's origin lies in the emigration of scientists and other intellectuals to America after World War II seeking better employment opportunities. Brain drain is of particular concern in many Rust Belt cities and communities where manufacturing plants have cut back production or shut down entirely, causing the areas' ambitious youth to flee for greener pastures.

J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, notes his own migration from ...

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