Sunday, March 21, 2021

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

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = Sociology

Short Description

Elaborate Description
This is a story of struggle and the communities which recreate it.  An application of personal experience on the statistical narrative of people in poor communities.  Poverty is not a racial issue as all peoples experience it.  What is needed is to know where to look.  The communities left behind by opportunities, vanishing jobs, all the while being racked by drug abuse and strife.  The people are not lazy by want, by forced to be seen as lazy by the way the various aspects of society create the circumstance that they are in.  Each individual can succeed, but that is difficult when society creates a perception of impossible odds.  Held down not for want of effort or skill, but for personal and social experiences.  In this way, those who are able to leave these communities tend to have a much higher rate of success than those who stay.  What is needed is a revaluation of not only the policies design to help people, but also how we treat each other.  

In early childhood, J.D. had lots of instability.  Most of the time Vance drifted between different homes.  His mother kept getting married, and then divorced.  His mother’s drug abuse and violent behavior caused family problems.  At times splitting time between living with his mother or grandmother because he was not safe with just his mother.  Although J.D.’s mother had a nursing license, she lost it due to drug abuse.  Depending on the time frame and who J.D.’s mother was with, they sometimes had more than enough money, other times there was real financial trouble.  But, when J.D. was sick, his mother knew how to navigate the healthcare system to ask appropriate questions.  The male relatives taught J.D. how to stand up for himself, in a violent manner.  To defend the honor of the family.  Although many had many vices of their own. 

There were two sources of stability in early childhood which were his sister Lindsay, and grandmother who he called mamaw.  Lindsay acted as the mother to J.D.  Mamaw was a reliable safety net.  Mamaw taught J.D. a code of honor, or a semblance of it, relating to working hard and not making life more difficult for those who are already having a difficult time.  Intolerant to any familial disloyalty.  No matter how bad things got, mamaw and papaw (J.D.’s grandfather), always had optimism for their children’s future.  The society expectations may not have been high, but J.D.’s grandparents provided a different set of expectations.  Papaw helped J.D. with school work.  J.D. felt his dependence on mamaw acutely and did not want to be a burden to her. 

It was not only mamaw’s stability that helped J.D. survive and find opportunities to prosper, it was also the military.  The military untaught J.D. many unhealthy habits, except how to shoot a gun in which he was previously taught good habits.  It was not just discipline, it was a lifestyle change which J.D. carried with him afterwards.  Many military members helped him along the way to become a mature adult.  Marine Corps taught J.D. not to underestimate himself.  The military was tough, but some in the military who knew J.D.’s grandmother thought that living with her was tougher.  The military, in this book, is portrayed in a positive perspective.  With various racial and income backgrounds, they were taught to respect other people’s culture without imposing their own. 

The culture of hillbillies is one that has trouble in abundance.  Turning to the law is of no importance because the people will correct their own deviances.  Mired in poverty which the educational system does not foster many opportunities to go further in education or get high income jobs.  Drug addiction is not the only unhealthy substance, as most people eat unhealthily, and are physically unhealthy.  The problem about this culture is that the people will not take accountability for their society, as they do not want to speak about it so as not to be judged.  They want to fix their own problems, but without assistance, they lack treatment for basic problems.  What little income they have tends to be spent on covering up their personal problems rather than getting themselves info financially stable position. 

J.D. learned from extreme experiences that he recognized would have made his family seem like lunatics.  They were not from J.D.’s perspective because the stories told were all and righting wrongs, and his relatives were the on the right side.  The experiences people have in their childhood are the tools used later in life, even when the experiences do not fit their circumstance.  

This book isn’t difficult to read, but some parts are confusing because the book is not a simple narrative.  Partly because the situation is not simple, and partly because the story comes from memory which the author recognizes is not consistent.  The author discusses experiences which put him in contact with different cultures, but rather than try to understand and respected either, he chooses to keep them separate.  Sometimes taking a complex view of a situation, but sometimes being a bit simplistic, as in decodes a harsh reality but the missing info seems to prevent a fuller understanding.  This is not a drawback of the book considering that this is a memoir and not an academic study, but the parts of the book which had the personal experience attached to the general academic studies provided more in-depth understanding. 

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book
•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?
•How would you describe the hillbilly culture? 
•Why is there so much poverty in hillbilly communities?
•Are hillbillies lazy?
•What perception does the world create for hillbillies?
•What perception do the hillbillies have for themselves? 
•How would you describe J.D.’s early childhood? 
•What influence did J.D’s mother have on him
•How did Lindsay, his sister, treat him?
•What role did the male relatives provide for J.D.?
•What role did mamaw, J.D.’s grandmother have in his life?
•What did the military teach J.D.?
•What did J.D. learn about class cultures at Yale?

Book Details
Edition ISBN:  9780062872258
Pages to read:   216
Publication:     2018
1st Edition:      2016
Format:           eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          4
Overall           3