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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

4.2 93
by J. D. Vance

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"You will not read a more important book about America this year."—The Economist

"A riveting



"You will not read a more important book about America this year."—The Economist

"A riveting book."—The Wall Street Journal

"Essential reading."—David Brooks, New York Times

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.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Jennifer Senior
…a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump. 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…Whether you agree with Mr. Vance or not, you must admire him for his head-on confrontation with a taboo subject. And he frames his critique generously, stipulating that it isn't laziness that's destroying hillbilly culture but what the psychologist Martin Seligman calls "learned helplessness"—the fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.
The New York Times Book Review - Meghan Daum
…an affectionate yet unflinching look at growing up in social and domestic chaos in southwestern Ohio…Too often, America's longstanding discomfort with talking candidly about social class can make memoirs about hardscrabble upbringings sound like public service announcements. But if Vance is an adroit enough storyteller, he's a fiercely astute social critic of the sort we desperately need right now. Instead of cleaving his narrative to a political or ideological agenda, he wrestles honestly with the messy contradictions inherent to any conversation about race or class. For all his affection and empathy for his hillbilly brethren, he's not afraid to show the ways opportunities can be squandered not just by addiction or systemic failure but also out of laziness or stubbornness.
Publishers Weekly
In this compelling hybrid of memoir and sociological analysis, Vance digs deep into his upbringing in the hills of Jackson, Ky., and the suburban enclave of Middletown, Ohio. He chronicles with affection—and raw candor—the foibles, shortcomings, and virtues of his family and their own attempts to live their lives as working-class people in a middle-class world. Readers get to know his tough-as-nails grandmother, Mawmaw, who almost killed a man when she was 12 in Jackson, but who has to live among the sewing circles of Middletown. Her love for children, and for her grandson in particular, fuels her dream to become a children's attorney. When Vance finishes high school, he's not ready to head off to Ohio State, so Vance joins the Marines, completes a tour of duty in Iraq, and returns home with a surer sense of what he wants out of life and how to get it. He eventually enrolls in Yale Law School and becomes a successful lawyer, doggedly reflecting on the keys to his own success—family and community—and the ways they might help him understand the issues at stake in social policies today. Vance observes that hillbillies like himself are helped not by government policy but by community that empowers them and extended family who encourages them to take control of their own destinies. Vance's dynamic memoir takes a serious look at class. (June)
Wall Street Journal
“[Hillbilly Elegy] is 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.”
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.”
Rod Dreher
[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.
Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“What explains the appeal of Donald Trump? Many pundits have tried to answer this question and fallen short. But J.D. Vance nails it...stunning...intimate...”
Institute of Family Studies
“[A] new memoir that should be read far and wide.”
New York Post
“[A] frank, unsentimental, harrowing memoir...a superb book...”
Washington Post
“Vance movingly recounts the travails of his family.”
“Vance compellingly describes the terrible toll that alcoholism, drug abuse, and an unrelenting code of honor took on his family, neither excusing the behavior nor condemning it…The portrait that emerges is a complex one…Unerringly forthright, remarkably insightful, and refreshingly focused, Hillbilly Elegy is the cry of a community in crisis.”
David Brooks
“[Vance’s] description of the culture he grew up in is essential reading for this moment in history.”
Christianity Today
“The troubles of the working poor are well known to policymakers, but Vance offers an insider’s view of the problem.”
Reihan Salam
To understand the rage and disaffection of America’s working-class whites, look to Greater Appalachia. In HILLBILLY ELEGY, 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.
Amy Chua
“A beautifully and powerfully written memoir about the author’s journey from a troubled, addiction-torn Appalachian family to Yale Law School, Hillbilly Elegy is shocking, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and hysterically funny. It’s also a profoundly important book, one that opens a window on a part of America usually hidden from view and offers genuine hope in the form of hard-hitting honesty. Hillbilly Elegy announces the arrival of a gifted and utterly original new writer and should be required reading for everyone who cares about what’s really happening in America.”
Peter Thiel
“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.”
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.”
Jennifer Senior
“[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.”
Library Journal
Growing up in Appalachia may leave a person open to harsh criticism and stereotype, yet Vance delves into his childhood and upbringing to make a clear distinction between perception and reality. Born in Kentucky and shuffling among homes in Ohio, the author ended the cycle of poverty, abuse, and drug use after becoming a U.S. Marine and Yale Law School graduate. His memoir is less about his triumph and more about exposing the gritty truth of how a culture fell into ruin. Using examples from his own life with references to articles and studies throughout, Vance's intent is to show that what was once the fulfillment of the American Dream—moving to the Rust Belt for a better life—has now left families in peril. His plea is not for sympathy but for understanding. Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, this memoir is akin to investigative journalism. While some characters seem too caricaturelike, it is often those terrifyingly authentic traits that make people memorable. Vance is careful to point out that this is his recollection of events; not everyone is painted in a positive light. VERDICT 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.—Kaitlin Malixi, formerly at Virginia Beach P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-04-30
A Yale Law School graduate's account of his traumatic hillbilly childhood and the plight of America's angry white working class. "Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash," writes Vance, a biotech executive and National Review contributor. "I call them neighbors, friends, and family." In this understated, engaging debut, the author reflects on his stormy journey from the coal-country Kentucky hollers of Appalachia to the declining Rust Belt to life among the Ivy League-educated elite. Born into a poor Scots-Irish family—with a pill-addicted mother and "revolving door of father figures"—Vance was raised in Ohio by his beloved and newly middle-class grandparents, hardworking believers in the American dream who married in their teens and never shook the trappings (abuse, addiction, and constant fighting and screaming) of their native Kentucky's hillbilly culture. Mamaw, his grandmother, once set her husband on fire when he came home drunk; Papaw, a violent grouch, tossed a Christmas tree out the back door. In scenes at once harrowing and hilarious, we come to know these loud, rowdy gun-toters as the loyal and loving family whose encouragement helped the author endure "decades of chaos and heartbreak." In the Marines and at Yale, Vance learned to make responsible adult choices and overcame the learned helplessness that characterizes many in the working class. Pointedly identifying the cynicism and willingness to blame others endemic among that class, he describes the complex malaise—involving sociology, psychology, community, culture, and faith—that has left so many bereft of connections and social support and unable to find high-quality work. The solution, he believes, is not government action but in people asking themselves "what we can do to make things better." Declaring that he survived with the help of caring family and friends, he writes, "I am one lucky son of a bitch." An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and served in Iraq. A graduate of the Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he has contributed to the National Review and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. Vance lives in San Francisco with his wife and two dogs.

Author mail for J.D. Vance can be sent to the below:

P.O. Box 1040
West Chester, OH 45071

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 93 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I saw an interview with Mr. Vance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," and knew I had to read his book. As a veteran teacher in the Rust Belt, the story of his youth describes a growing number of my students and their home lives. While I witness firsthand why these children are not making it academically and exhibiting increased behavioral issues, it is more politically correct to blame the educators, schools, the government and their failed public policy for the decline in our students' abilites to compete in this global economy. JD Vance does not offer a solution to these problems, but he does suggest "It can start when we stop blaming others and ask ourselves what can we do to make it better."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am an Appalachian, too, a western Pennsylvanian. I was moved to tears by how accurately JD describes our families' and towns' misfortunes in the last decades.This is the first conservative opinion in a long time that gets it right. I thoroughly enjoyed his life story, was uplifted by it, and feel restored hope---if we can get Appalachia to read this, listen act!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There is nothing really surprising in this book, but it is very welcome to have a frank look at these truths about American life. Vance uses his Ivy league advantage to give his memoir a heartfelt shove on to the national stage. His story is moving, scary, and aggravating in turns as he navigates through childhood in decaying towns in Southern Ohio to what most would consider a life of great success. Yet he can't really leave his past behind and,understandably, doesn't really want to. Its just a question of self preservation. Truly it can be hard to know where you fit in the world. Recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was difficult to put down. Both tragic and hopeful, the author's story illustrates the powerful influence family has on the individual and the culture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed Mr. Vance's account of growing up in eastern Ky. I shared similar experiences growing up poor in northern Ky. As a gay male, my life was on the line more frequently. The physical scars can't begin to convey the horror of always having to be on alert for the homophobic savages that preyed upon my terrain in the 60s. There were no grandparents to offer even the short periods of solace that Mr. Vance found. There were no safe places to relax in. Even the churches of the 60s could offer no relief to a poor, gay kid. Being smart was equally frowned upon by the poor kids in my neighborhood. Mr. Vance made it out fairly unscathed,. I too escaped my hell with only the physical scars and occasional nightmares to show for it. I found myself reading Mr Vance's account full of envy. His ordeals dealing with inappropriate parenting were unpleasant, to say the least, but I was so relieved that he wasn't pulverized on a regular basis. I would recommend Hillbilly Elegy to anyone that would like to take a peak inside some of the horrors of growing up poor in Kentucky. Mr. Vance included the pleasant parts of his childhood as well. I thoroughly enjoyed those accounts and related to some of the difficulties in establishing healthy, adult relationships. I found it quite interesting that Mr. Vance turned out to be a Republican. I watched my family repeatedly vote against their best interests economically by voting Republican. They voted purely for the social issues at stake; abortion, pro family (anti gay), anything anti female, anything against Affirmative Action, etc.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a really good and thoughtful book. It actually helped me better understand my husband and his family, who have similar roots. Really good insight by the author
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Educational and enlightening
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Public policy people should read this. Vance did an excellent job with telling his story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I havent ever read a book, written in the first person, like this one. I hated to put it down. I recommend it to everyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a young adult working in SW Va I first came into contact with these stereotypical hillbillies. They were as alien to me (having grown up in CA & Washington DC) as I was to them. I couldnt understand why they wete unable to recognize or solve their societal problems. Now I do.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Helped me understand in a much better way the reason for the lifestyle in communities in Appalachia and the like, something so many people, including myself, have looked down and held in derision. I will be a kinder person when the word hillbilly comes up, now. No real solution here but a greater understanding of their plight is a good start. I recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fascinating right from page1. Loved this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A different world. Opens your eyes. Worth reading and thinking about and discussing. America needs to understand these people and help them to help themselves. To see both the good and the destructive parts of the culture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Strikes a cord since I grew up in a factory town in Ohio.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book is excellent, however i am curious as to WHY this book was $12.99 and is now $15.99 ?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wish I had about 100 copies of this to share with others.
Anonymous 10 months ago
I listened to the audio book (read by the author) and was captivated. My family is from eastern Kentucky and everything that he described is true. Many of my uncle's and cousins went up to the rust belt, especially Dayton & Middletown, to find jobs. The core message of the book, while the author plainly admits he does not have the answers, is the culture cannot change by just throwing money at it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good read. I enjoyed it although the memoir often read more like a statistical essay assignment. However, the plight of struggling folks in appalation region came through with heart and caring.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Quit looking at reviews and read it! Great book!
MullyJS More than 1 year ago
A very touching memoir on author's life growing up in Ohio and his hillbilly roots. I learned far more than I expected to about the disintegration of family, neighborhoods, way of life. It's a hard one to read in that he tells the story of his life, while dissects the roots of poverty, leaving you feeling hopeless for all those who are unable to move beyond their own fates, only because they can't see beyond what life had handed them. It could be any of us. And success could be theirs for the taking.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a must read for Social Workers and anyone who works with the poor!! A lot of insight on the lives, troubles and some very good ideas of helping them advance to the next class. This is a personal journey of ones life and how he overcame many hardships in order to succeed. There is a better way of helping the poor without race involved and he gives some very good ideas.
Anonymous 6 months ago
This memoir has so much to say about the country we live in and the communities that have been too easy to overlook. I could not put this book down and hope that JD Vance writes more, especially with respect to the political climate since this memoir ended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book! Brought back so many memories of my own childhood living in Appalachia a few miles east of Middletown.use to date a girl there in the 50s. Congratulations on your great story and success . I am so happy to have lived my hillbilly life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We all know that the truth will set you free . What most fail to understand is that the government can not fill in for broken families and our own self doubts. Hope for a better future must come from the individual that daily makes choices that help, or hinder their plight .
Anonymous 9 months ago
I found this book well written and captivating. I moved from a metropolitan area to an area that lacks culture and incentives for the locals. There is a lackbof interest in changing and for education. This book has helped me to somewhat understand the people. Mr. Lance was fortunate to rise above the dysfunctions in his life. Was it his grandmother's strength or being in the Marines that pushed him? Maybe it was both.