Hillbilly Elegy is an honest memoir about the plight of working-class Appalachia

Hillbilly Elegy is an honest memoir about the plight of working-class Appalachia

I didn’t think a book with “hillbilly” in the title would ever appeal to me, a first-generation American living in suburban Forest Hills.

But alas, my affinity for memoirs and words far surpassed my initial skepticism, and I was quickly hooked by J.D. Vance’s frank and touching memoir, Hillbilly Elegy.

Vance is a self-proclaimed “cultural emigrant.” He grew up in the rugged, brutal world of lower-class whites in Appalachia and Middletown, Ohio– or as Vance so affectionally and frequently refers to his kin, hillbillies. They are the forgotten people of America, drowning in an abyss of poverty, pessimism, and the pernicious presence of abuse in all forms.

Vance himself endured a low-income household, an absent father, an unstable mother with an ever-changing list of toxic behavior and various boyfriends, and the generally ruthless nature of hillbilly culture.

Yet, he was one of the few to make it out the other side, enlisting in the Marines, graduating college early, and earning his law degree at Yale Law.

But his story is rarity compared to that of those he grew up with. Thus, he set out to examine this and the generally deteriorating society of working-class Appalachia through the lens of his deeply personal life story.

Considering this narrative is one that feels so distant, I was surprised by how easily Vance was able to latch my attention and sympathy. Vance is a compelling storyteller; his voice immediately struck me as very distinct. His writing plainly demonstrates his intellectual pedigree, yet he maintains a level of casualness and personalness that allows an easily forgeable connection between the reader and him.

Furthermore, Vance’s story as well is compelling on its own. His fortitude in the face of numerous traumas is commendable enough, let alone his ability to carry himself from a disadvantaged childhood to a Yale Law degree and happy family. What’s more admirable, however, and also contributes to his likeability as narrator, is his humility and recognition of his own luck. He never forgot to acknowledge that he was privileged enough to find success because, unlike many he grew up around, he had other supportive family members to make up for his parents. That resonated with me, and I appreciated those admissions of honesty and gratitude.

Lastly, I really admired and respected Vance’s perspective and opinions. He did his best to analyze the downfalls of his community objectively, rarely resorting to blaming the government or outside factors. It’s apparent how desperately he wants to improve the place he came from, but he doesn’t allow that to inhibit his honesty.

Simply put, Hilllbilly Elegy is a brutally, heartbreakingly honest memoir, and Vance’s voice and perspective is a powerful reminder of all that people can accomplish and overcome.