Title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J. D. Vance
Narrator: J. D. Vance
Audiobook Length: 6 hours, 49 minutes
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Release Date: 28 June 2016
“Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were ‘dirt poor and in love,’ and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.”
Thoughts on the Novel: The best part of Hillbilly Elegy was learning about the town in which we lived for seven years in the 2010s. While we lived in Middletown, Ohio, we observed many things that were strange to us, biases we could never overcome, and attitudes towards life in general that baffled us. Mr. Vance provides origins to those behaviors and attitudes that so confused us, and it is an eye-opening experience. He also confirms the severe economic downturn we witnessed as well as the general apathy towards life we saw so often in the townspeople. Having a reason for this does not help the situation, but it certain makes what we witnessed understandable.
While Mr. Vance’s memoir is enlightening, one should express caution before applying his lessons to an entire culture. After all, this is one man’s musings about his heritage – a man who no longer lives in the area and who is far removed from his former socio-economic status and that of his relatives. His is the exception to the rule, and his “lessons” on how hillbillies can improve their lots in life are overly simplistic and contingent on many of the same advantages and chances that he was able to grab.
Mr. Vance does make some excellent observations about the hillbilly culture and does explain to some extent how such a blue-collar society can support a political party that typically does not attract blue-collar voters. However, it is important to remember that Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir and nothing more. Any sociological observations are biased in the extreme and severely limited to his own experiences. While he sheds light on the Appalachian culture, it is not a serious study from which one can draw conclusions or apply conclusions to the entire culture. In fact, this is what Mr. Vance attempts to do but fails to remove his own bias and luck. The result is a book that is interesting but fails to provide any real insight into this very large and blighted area of America.
Thoughts on the Audiobook: Audiobooks narrated by their authors are always a chancy experience. While they might know their words and the effects they want to achieve, some authors do not have the voice to narrate. J. D. Vance, thankfully, is not one of them. While his voice is not Hollywood-worthy, it is perfectly adequate in its tonality and pitch. The biggest surprise is the total lack of accent. Given the closeness to his Kentucky family and the fact that so many people in southern Ohio where he grew up have a southern accent, the fact that he does not have one seems odd. If anything, one could easily interpret that he does not have an accent because of a conscientious decision to hide his roots, which entirely changes the message within his entire memoir. While it does not distract from his narration, it does cause listeners to pause and rethink what he has to say.