JD Vance: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy cover

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir about someone growing up in an Appalachian town.  It is well written, touching, and will probably teach you something, especially if you don't grow up in Appalachia.

One big piece of the book is about socioeconomic class.  Vance talks about this from all angles.  He tells his stories about growing up poor.  There's the academic angle -- as a kid in high school, Vance remarks that he read a report on the troubles faced by black inner city youth and felt like it described his life.  He also brings in a historical perspective, talking about the lives of his parents and grandparents and the generational economic changes and struggles for opportunity.  

The pieces about growing up poor were things that I didn't already know about.  Even though I grew up as the child of a single, working-class parent, and even though I benefited from Social Security (Social Security provides support for kids when a working parent dies until the child grows up), I didn't face the same challenges as Vance.  My family loved me and cared for me; my schools didn't have violence; we had enough money to support my education, including some summer debate programs when I was in high school.

Vance's stories of his childhood broke my heart again and again.  At some level, I knew that some kids grew up with hard circumstances, but I didn't appreciate it at an emotional level.  In Hillbilly Elegy, I learned about growing up in a house that was struggling with divorce, violence, drugs, and a poor diet, and I learned how his grandparents and the Marines gave him the stability he needed to take control of his life.  And just like how Vance starts personal and then talks about broader trends, he discusses some statistics and some cultural pieces that played into his own experiences.

To be clear, though, his perspective isn't partisan.  On the one hand, he talks about the importance of things like social welfare programs; on the other, he talks about people abusing the welfare system.  The narratives we hear on the left and the right aren't mutually exclusive.  Pieces of both are true.

One part of his story that I shared was his touch with wealth.  Vance eventually goes to Yale Law School, and he experiences a bit of culture shock.  When I went to Stanford, I remembered feeling shocked that people who grew up in families that made more than I ever imagined I would make in my life thought of themselves as middle class, and Vance describes some similar instances.

Towards the end, Vance talks about things we can do to help.  He quotes a friend: "The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can't fix these things.  They'll always be around.  But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins."