According to Amazon, “Hillbilly Elegy” was rated as the #1 New York Times Bestsellers on books that explain Donald Trump’s incredible upset in the Presidential Election this year. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but that information is indicative of what kind of book this is.
First of all, it’s a memoir. J.D. Vance grew up in Kentucky but moved later to Ohio. His family consists of “hillbillies” including Mamaw and Papaw (that’s grandmother and grandfather for those of you not fluent in hillbilly). The story starts with unprecedented optimism: the post-war world gave rise to a strong economy and most importantly, a strong middle class. But as time passed, jobs became scarce. Particularly in the “rust belt” of places like Ohio. The middle class shrunk and dysfunction abounded. The nuclear family took possibly one of the hardest hits, something that Vance constantly speaks about.
Because J.D. Vance’s parents were divorced. He lived with his mom and didn’t see his dad consistently until early in his teen years. His mom’s relationships were, to say in the least, dysfunctional. Marriage and divorce, boyfriends and dating, were commonplace for her throughout J.D.’s childhood and into adulthood. The strongest foundational part of J.D’s life was his Mamaw and Papaw who, through most of his life, lived close by and even next door. Whenever his mom went through some emotional crisis, J.D. could count on his grandparents to host him through the fight. They dealt with their own demons as well. Papaw was an alcoholic for some of J.D’s early childhood. Mamaw had a colorful vocabulary and a no nonsense attitude that could bring even the most hardened man to his knees.
J.D. Vance joined the Marine Corps to get away from his family life. And he went on to be very successful. After a four year tour in the Marine Corps as a Public Affairs Marine at Cherry Point, he went to Ohio State University and then transferred to law school at Yale.
This book is more than a memoir. It is a sad critique on the decline of the middle class. But even more, it says so much about the loss of the family. I was struck about a few things Vance says that are so profound. He says that he goes to the gym, shops at Whole Foods, and enjoys a fulfilling and lush life. And there’s nothing inherently wrong about any of those things. But what J.D. points out so eloquently through his rags-to-riches life story is that the rich and powerful don’t really understand what being poor means. There are so out of touch with how most people live. And that, I think, is the real message behind this story.
There’s humor, there’s pain, a little bit of everything for everyone in this little book.