A note from Amy (8/5/21): Amy from the future, here. Had I known, when I both read and reviewed this novel, how strongly I disagreed with the vast majority of J.D. Vance’s politics I likely would not have chosen to include this review on the page. That said, I do not regret reading the book, because living inside a vacuum is problematic regardless of your personal views/politics. That said… On with the review.
Despite my ongoing commitment to read / consume nothing but fluff during (to borrow a phrase being used by a YouTuber I’m a fan of) “the great unpleasantness” that is 2020, I was scrolling through Hoopla and saw Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance was available to borrow. Since I’ve been seeing the ads for the Netflix adaptation I decided to give it a try.
The things I knew about Hillbilly Elegy before I started were:
- The mom had a substance abuse problem
- The family was not financially well-off
- Much of the story takes place in southern Ohio, near Cincinnati
What I did not count on (foolishly) was that this story would allow my liberal, upper-middle-class self a window into the low income, Evangelical Christian world of white, rural, America. J.D. Vance’s upbringing could not have been more different from my own: raised in part by his addict mother, his hillbilly grandparents and his sister, J. D. says early on that he grew up from a young age fully believing that his choices had no ability to impact his future. He was raised in an environment and culture that caused him to feel hopeless to impact any change in his life.
What Hillbilly Elegy made me think about is that in much of the country, outside of my comfortable suburban, upper-middle-class neighborhood, there are millions of Americans struggling financially and their children are growing up not even knowing that there’s a different way to be – that there are other options available to them and ways to break the cycle and be something different – if they want to. Many of us fail to really understand the degree of poverty in America, and the inherent disadvantage it brings to the children growing up in those cities and towns. It’s not that the hillbillies of America “can’t be bothered” to do the things children growing up in the suburbs do. But as one reviewer on Goodreads put it, “you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don’t even have boots.” You can’t change things for yourself if you don’t even know there are ways to go about doing it – and if you don’t know that you don’t know something, how do you even start looking for the answer?
It’s fitting that this post will go up on Election Day in the United States. In this year of craziness and political tension, I think this book is important for people who don’t live in rural America to read. You hear people use the phrase “victim of their circumstances” and I think the powerful part of J. D. Vance’s memoir is that he doesn’t characterize himself as a victim, because he’s not. People in rural America, who live in circumstances people in the suburbs often can’t even imagine, aren’t “other” or “less.” It speaks so strongly to the existing biases of white privilege that the point so many people took from this book were “Well, this explains why Trump got elected.” Because it really doesn’t – and it isn’t trying to. It’s a window into a life that you may not be familiar with, and gives you the gift of perception from someone who grew up there, and what it’s like for him to look back from his life now, which is vastly different from how he grew up.
Have you read Hillbilly Elegy, or have you watched the Netflix movie, yet? What were your thoughts, and what did you take with you? Let me know in the comments.