“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance

c.2016, Harper
$27.99 / $34.99 Canada
264 pages

hillbilly-elegy

BOOK REVIEW
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

Home is where the heart is.

It’s where folks take you in because they love you, and put up with your nonsense for the same reason. It’s where you go when there’s nowhere else, a haven both for body and soul. Home is where the heart is – and, as in the new memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, it’s also where troubles begin.

At first glance, most people would say J.D. Vance had a pretty good bringing-up.

Vance was born in Middletown , Ohio , sometimes referred to as “Middletucky” because, like him, many residents’ roots lay in the Bluegrass State . Kentucky ’s Appalachian hills, in fact, were where Vance remembers spending the best of his childhood, running wild with cousins while his grandmother, Mamaw, visited kin. Her brothers – Vance’s beloved uncles – taught Vance how to be a man.

Such information didn’t come from the men his mother brought around.

There was a succession of them: five husbands, various boyfriends, in a roulette-wheel of homes. Vance mistrusted his Mom, barely knew his father, and was raised to believe that the man didn’t want him; he grew to rely instead on his older sister and his Mamaw, whose home was a shelter.

She lived close-by, often just a block away, and he stayed with her more than he lived with his mother. A heavy smoker who spewed profanity, Mamaw was tough as nails but tender with babies. She demanded that Vance excel in school, and she protected him from “the worst of what [the] community offered,” though there were times when he was ashamed of her.

He was ashamed of his mother, his behavior, and the poverty that surrounded him at home, too, but as Vance matured, he learned a few truths: his mother tried to do her best, but drug addiction was stronger. Anger and yelling were not keys to a successful relationship. Education was the strongest way out. And “…Mamaw was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Let’s face it: a happy-happy memoir is, well, it’s no fun. We want to see some pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap sentiment but there’s a better surprise inside “Hillbilly Elegy.” It comes in author J.D. Vance’s words.

With a sense of the poetic, Vance writes of the beauty of the place of his kin: deep hollers, green rolling hillsides, and people who live by a fierce code of honor. But we learn a different story, too: that of hopelessness, early pregnancies, addiction, and the sense that poverty is a life sentence. These are the things Vance says he grew up with, and he takes readers on a tour that rises and curves like an Appalachian mountain road. He then explains why this is relevant to the entire rest of America , including everyone who voted on November 8.

This is a book that’s easy to dive into and hard to forget. It’s perfect, if your concern lies with those who are marginalized, even just a little bit. To see how The Other Half lives, “Hillbilly Elegy” is the book to take home.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin

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