I stumbled on Hillbilly Elegy completely by accident when someone on Facebook shared this article about why poor white Americans are avid Trump supporters in this presidential race.
The article was an interview with J.D. Vance, the author, and his insights on what Trump’s appeal is to the culture he grew up in.
Anyway, the article was so interesting that I immediately requested the book and then waited many months for it to come up on hold for me.
When it finally did, I downloaded it that same day (after the girls went to bed) and finished it by the next afternoon. I was completely sucked into this book.
I’m not the only one – this book became a New York Times bestseller when it came out this summer, and the Economist review said, “You will not read a more important book about America this year.”
Plus, it’s just hugely readable.
This is the story of J.D. Vance’s family, starting with his grandparents (whom he refers to as Mamaw and Papaw). They got married as young teenagers – 14 and 17 – and because Mamaw was pregnant, they moved almost immediately from their home state of Kentucky to Ohio for a job at an Armco Steel plant.
Here they hoped for a better life than the one they’d grown up with, and to some extent that happens – Papaw earns a very decent wage and they buy themselves a two-story house with electricity and running water in a reasonably nice neighborhood.
But, despite a stable job and a good home, they’re hard-pressed to escape their hillbilly roots. Papaw is a heavy drinker and Mamaw is, as J.D. calls her, “a violent non-drunk.” For example, Mamaw tells Papaw that if he comes home drunk again, she’ll kill him, and when he does a few weeks later, she waits until he’s passed out on the couch, douses him with kerosene and then drops a lit match on his shirt. He bursts into flame and his life is only saved because one of their daughters springs into action and smothers the flames with a blanket.
The fighting, screaming, and dysfunction in their house is basically non-stop, and they eventually separate, but not before wreaking a lot of havoc on their three children who mostly drop out of high school, end up pregnant, or trapped in abusive marriages. Two of their three children manage to pull their lives together after a while, but one of the daughters never really does.
That daughter is J.D’s mother, and she is pretty much a disaster. J.D’s childhood is full of one new man after another as his mother moves in with different men, marries some of them (she eventually is married five different times, all of which end pretty quickly in divorce), and constant fighting with these men. She earns a nursing degree, but eventually loses her job because she’s abusing prescription drugs, which turns into harder substances, including heroin. They move from house to house, with little stability for J.D. and his older sister, and in a few instances, his mother is arrested for child abuse.
As you can imagine, J.D’s home life is in such shambles that his school life is also a mess – it’s too chaotic at home for him to concentrate on school work, and he never knows when he’ll be moving again.
Finally, in high school, he ends up moving in with his Mamaw – she’s mellowed (a tiny bit) in her old age, and she provides him the kind of stable home life he needs, and badgers him into doing well in school. She also orders him to stop hanging out with the trouble makers he’d been friends with (he says that maybe other kids would have ignored that directive but those kids didn’t have a grandmother who vowed to run them over with a car if she ever found out he was with them again. And he’s pretty sure she would too).
When he graduates from high school – something that seemed an almost impossibility a few years earlier – he’s accepted at Ohio State, but he’s extremely wary of taking out student loans when he’s not sure he’s mature enough to handle living on his own and taking care of his own schedule. After all the work he’s put in to not flunk out, he doesn’t want to be in piles of debt so he can skip class and drink with a bunch of other freshman.
Instead he joins the Marines, where he really learns self-discipline and the kind of confidence in himself he’s never had before. When he comes back, he dives into college and then eventually goes on to Yale Law.
The book does a great job sharing not only his own story but setting it against the larger backdrop of other families in his same situation, all across America – children who grow up with their fight-or-flight switch permanently turned on from years of family turmoil, fighting and abuse, people who can’t seem to escape the cycle of abusive relationships because they’ve never seen a functional one modeled for them, or who do manage to elevate themselves, but find themselves stumbling at every step because there is just so much they don’t know and they don’t have anyone to turn to with questions.
It helped me recognize how many things I take for granted about my own growing up and my children’s childhood, and what kinds of things are actually helpful for people in less fortunate circumstances.
And it showed me a side of America I wasn’t that familiar with, in a way that helped me understand it in a sympathetic way. It’s just a really great book.
Be warned that there is quite a lot of swearing in it – I didn’t find it particularly offensive since it wasn’t ever played for shock value, but rather a reflection of the culture he grew up in.
Have you heard of this one or read it yet? I’d love to hear what you thought about it.