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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
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Archive - Additional Reads > Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - Oct 2017

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message 1: by Lynn, Moderator (new)

Lynn | 4120 comments Mod
Voted by group members as our Memoir & Autobiography additional read

Hillbilly Elegy A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.

Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.

At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.


Nanci | 78 comments I just finished reading this recently. I'll join in the discussion.


Colleen  | 138 comments I'll be reading this soon - it's for a RL book club group, but I'll try to get to it in October. Otherwise, I'll for sure be checking in.


message 4: by Lynn, Moderator (new)

Lynn | 4120 comments Mod
Nanci wrote: "I just finished reading this recently. I'll join in the discussion."

So what were your overall thoughts Nanci?


Janina (sylarana) | 692 comments I'm just getting started with this one and haven't read much yet. But, so far, I really like the writing style.


message 6: by Mary (new)

Mary Latoroco | 12 comments Have it haven't gotten to it yet. Please let me know how it is


Reija | 101 comments I have read 50% and I have to say I was expecting that he would have more general talk about working class or little bit bigger picture, so far this has been just family memoir and not very interesting.


message 8: by Deb (new) - rated it 3 stars

Deb Bartram | 115 comments I finished the book about a week ago for my RL book club. In addition I ended up speaking to two people while on travel recently about the book.

So when I first started the book, I was very interested to see what he had to say and had the impression that this book would have some larger themes discussed to help understand how life in Appalachia has progressed and contributed to current political views. I was disappointed in this expectation.

That said, if you are looking for a discussion of one person’s family and story, you will achieve that. I was glad to have read the book and his experiences even though I didn’t agree with every viewpoint he holds. However, as a person who grew up poor in western Massachusetts, I often found myself feeling that his story was not overly unique, and that the “hillbilly” story was not unique. I didn’t feel like his story offered much to the reader from that perspective.

I am one of four sisters, all of whom overcame our poor childhoods to achieve success and become contributing members of society. I am also what one would term a liberal and I believe social programs have the ability to truly provide that leg up where needed without creating a dependent society. But I also believe that much of that independence comes from the individual ( and their learned beliefs growing up). My mom hated being “on the dole” but did it to better her education and to provide her kids the means to get ahead. As soon as she could become independent, she did. That was the lesson I learned....that your goal was to be able to get to the point where you could give to others to help them along.

So I’m interested to hear others perspectives. The other members of my RL book club felt similarly to me, and there was one who grew up poor in Pennsylvania, one in New York, and one in Tennessee. So it was good to hear the perspectives from multiple geographical areas. We all could relate to being the first generation to go to college and being thrust into social situations for which we were unprepared.

What do others think?


message 9: by Janina (last edited Oct 10, 2017 09:50PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Janina (sylarana) | 692 comments I very much agree with you, Deb. I grew up in an upper middle-class family in Germany. My dad has a science PhD, my mom has a humanities university degree, my uncle a PhD in Philosophy .. so basically a very academic family and the idea that I would not attend college never crossed anyone's mind. I'm now part of the West Coast Elite (whatever that is) and probably about as liberal as it gets (though not a socialist or Sanders - fangirl .. less due to his politics, but more because I cannot support any old white guys anymore no matter what they stand for). So, clearly, my perspective and life experience is vastly different than the authors and I found his story very intriguing and well-written. I enjoyed reading the book. However, I also struggled with the focus on a culture in crisis. I think, we're seeing the same thing happening all over the "Western" world ... in places where people have enough social security not to worry about dying of hunger or infectious diseases anymore (and yet, poor people do live less healthy/long lives) and at the same time have almost unlimited access to both drugs/alcohol as well as mind-numbing media that allows them to not deal with the situation they are in. Not that I'm trying to blame anyone .. and the awful discrepancy in the quality of education both in schools and private homes is certainly contributing to all that misery. But, it's not a Hillbilly thing .. it's a world-wide crisis imo. (Looking at the last German election shows the exact same thing happening over there). People don't have to fight for their survival anymore (which is a good thing), but they are also left in a situation with very few and very difficult paths to improve on their lives which few or only some are fit enough to undertake. Hence, they are stuck in misery and anger and frustration. I'm sure this did influence the election because who cares if that angry moron who makes no sense and just spouts anger, sexism and racism is not going to better their lives. If you have no hope, why vote for hope?
I got the sense that the author saw his military education as the best way out and the social benefits as obstacles .. which I just can't agree with. I do think education is part of the answer, but that should be preschool-high school, not the army. But, how to give hope where all hope is lost (and likely for good reason)?


message 10: by Joan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joan Barnett | 39 comments I just finished this today. I listened to it on audio and J.D. narrated and I love it when the actual authors narrate.

I agree with many of you. I grew up in lower middle class Pennsylvania. We actually lived in a richer neighborhood but we were kind of outsiders (long story). I grew up with much of the flight or fight response he talks about. It wasn't a very stable home life. I do agree in his assessment about that. What I thought really rang true is the hopelessness that these societies feel that I think transcends every poor area and culture. I agree with his section 8 stance where it should be peppered in with all communities where kids can see hope. Kids do strive to be better if they see what is possible. I feel that since I did live in that richer neighborhood that I did see what was possible.

I also just read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business and Grit. I think that helped my thought process while reading this book. One of the books (can't remember which one) talks about a scientific experiment about perceived helplessness which I think really explains these situations.

I just wish that some of these lawmakers out there would really understand the problem and try to do something about it. At the same time other people outside the community need to get involved to show hope. I'm proud to work at a company that volunteers their time mentoring some students at an elementary school here in the area that sees lots of violence. Many of the kids there are definitely in the fight or flight stance and it definitely affects their learning on a daily basis. My boss is talking to one of the kids about the possibility of being an architect (he is now in middle school and has been mentored for a couple of years). Before my boss mentored, the boy didn't even know what an architect was.


Jackie | 12 comments It was interesting to learn of his background and that he was able to break the cycle of poverty for himself. I did expect more discussion of ways to help create more opportunities to change the living and education in such situations.


Kirsten  (kmcripn) | 19 comments I just started this yesterday and read 30%. I do like his writing style. His views on his background and his family is very interesting.

I consider myself middle class, and I live in the Pacific NW, and come from a "unbroken" family. So, this is like a window into an alien culture.

I love the bits with Mamaw. She is a firecracker!


Colleen  | 138 comments I finished a couple weeks ago. My RL book club had a member raised in the south had some issues with the book, including the fact the author grew up in Ohio.

I liked the book, just didn't love it as I thought I would. But he had some good points and it was pretty well written. He doesn't have the answers, but given a lot to think about.


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