Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy


J.D. Vance

I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.
– J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance calls “bullshit” on the theory that he’s successful because he’s brilliant:

People look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today.  With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit.  Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of people rescued me.

I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.  I want people to understand something I learned only recently:  For those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.

Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance is a candid reflection on what it takes to survive, thrive, and find joy after experiencing childhood abuse and neglect.  His book has soared to the best-seller list because early reviewers claimed it explains Trump voters.  It doesn’t.

But, this hasn’t stopped Mr. Vance from jumping on the conservative bandwagon to disdain “elitists” like Hillary Clinton who wrote It Takes a Village.  In fact, he might have gotten the unconditional love and support of family members and mentors that he needed to be successful because First Lady Clinton told people when he was just twelve years old that “it takes a village” for children to grow into able, caring, resilient adults.  Three years earlier, the Delany sisters published Having Our Say:  The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years which explains why Black people who are descended from house slaves (who were either informally or formally educated) are more successful than those who are descended from field slaves (who were not educated).

We all need a map and an able crew to successfully navigate life.

J.D. and Usha Chilukuri Vance

Yale wasn’t just my dream school,
it was also the cheapest option on the table.
– J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

Mr. Vance met his wife Usha, who clerks for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, in law school at Yale University.  She knew how to navigate Yale and generously shared her map with him.  His contracts professor Amy Chua (author of the best-selling The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) gave him “million-dollar advice” for his career and personal life:

I was remarkably ignorant of how to get ahead.  Not knowing things that many others do often has serious economic consequences. . .

The networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value. . .

Social capital is all around us.  Those who tap into it and use it prosper.  Those who don’t are running life’s race with a major handicap.  This is a serious problem for kids like me.

Yes, it is.  Mr. Vance was blessed to have a number of  what Alice Miller calls “enlightened witnesses” in his life.  They are people who tell kids like J.D. that they aren’t responsible for their parent’s failures. At the same time, these people teach a child how to have a different outcome in life. A child’s ability to thrive and be successful in life turns directly on how many of these people are available to help the child navigate life.

James Donald Bowman changed his name to James David Vance on his wedding day.

I was one of those kids with a grim future.
– J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

Mr. Vance’s father Donald Bowman abandoned him.  His mother Bev Vance was a registered nurse and drug addict who married and divorced five times.  He was guided and protected by his grandparents, Jim Vance (Papaw) and Bonnie Blanton (Mamaw), who didn’t have big dreams growing up in the hills of Appalachia:

. . .unless you have a Mamaw and Papaw to make sure you stay the course, you might never make it out.

Mamaw would kill anyone who tried to keep me from her.  This worked for us because Mamaw was a lunatic and our entire family feared her.

Not everyone can rely on the saving graces of a crazy hillbilly.  Child services are for many kids, the last pieces of the safety net; if they fall through, precious little remains to catch them.

J.D. Vance

No person’s childhood gives him or her
a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card.
J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

One of the most difficult lessons a survivor of childhood abuse and neglect must learn is that we aren’t responsible for another person’s behavior.  It isn’t our fault.  Mr. Vance ultimately reunited with his father and learned to have empathy for his mother.  Still, he holds her accountable:

Mom is no villain. . .she listened too much to the wrong voice in her head.  But Mom deserves much of the blame. . .

Are [hillbillies] tough enough to look at ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

People. . .don’t lose contact with our parents because we don’t care; we lose contact with them to survive. . .We are forced, either by wisdom or by the law, to take the path of self-preservation.

Usha Chilurkuri and J.D. Vance on their wedding day

I was, [Usha] said, a turtle.
“Whenever something bad happens ~
even a hint of disagreement ~
you withdraw completely.”
– J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

I cried when I read Mrs. Vance’s observation about her husband.  I too have the instincts of a turtle.  Mr. Vance credits her for helping him evolve and thrive:

Even at my best, I’m a delayed explosion. . .

Chaos begets chaos.  Instability begets instability.  Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly. . .My self-image was bitterness masquerading as arrogance. . .

It’s no surprise that every single person in my family who has built a successful home ~ Aunt Wee [Lori Meibers], Lindsay [Ratliff, his half-sister and protector], my cousin Gail [Huber] ~ married someone from outside our little culture.

I’ve noticed the same dynamic in my family of origin.  And, I deeply regret that it took me so long to put a mountain range between me and them.  I also regret not timely knowing that I could have gone to a more prestigious law school like Northwestern or Yale for less money than it cost me to go to DePaul.  I had no idea that I’d need passionate mentors to graduate with viable career prospects:

Law school is a three-year obstacle course of life and career decisions.

Usha Vance with their son born on June 4, 2017

The things I wanted most in the entire world
~ a happy partner and happy home ~
required constant mental focus.
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

Mr. Vance spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps working in public affairs before graduating from Ohio State summa cum laude (in less than two years) and Yale Law School where he was a member of the law review.  The Vance family recently relocated to Columbus, Ohio and welcomed the birth of their son.  Mr. Vance launched the non-profit Our Ohio Renewal to deal with the opiate crisis.

He might forever be a hillbilly at heart, but he’s now also a polished and highly successful professional due to the guidance, protection, and unconditional love he’s received along the way from enlightened witnesses and his social network:

They connect us to the right people, ensure that we have opportunities, and impart valuable information.  Without them, we’re going it alone.

The old adage says that it’s better to be lucky than good.  Apparently having the right network is better than both.

Indeed.  A special shout-out to Kiwi Mary, the host of the World’s Best Book Club, for persuading to read Hillbilly Elegy.

If this book interests you, you might also like The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years by Sadie and Bessie Delany, Alice Miller’s books, and It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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