Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy
Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Harper, 2016.
When I came to interview at Duke 35 years ago, a finance faculty member told me she pinched herself every morning while driving to work on 15-501. But it was not by luck that she landed a tenure track position at an elite university. She was a product of upper class culture. She inherited attitudes and habits about work, education and relationships that put her on the road to success.
As J.D. Vance explains in his childhood memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, the upper class and working class are different and the customs and values of each group determine their children’s chances for a prosperous future or a grim one. Vance was born to a dysfunctional family originally from the hills of Eastern Kentucky who moved to the Rust Belt, taking their chaotic and violent culture with them.
Vance begins his story by describing the lives of his forebears. In the 1940’s after his maternal grandparents move to Ohio, their lives improve financially, yet their marriage is a war zone. A generation later, Vance’s mother is a teenager with two children, already divorced. Vance is raised in a turbulent environment with a new stepfather and new stepsiblings every year. They move from home to home. His mother becomes a drug addict. In high school Vance moves to his grandmother’s peaceful house, and his life begins to turn around. After a stint in the Marines and a degree from Ohio State, he attends Law School at Yale and discovers how the other half lives.
Vance calls himself a cultural emigrant and he is acutely aware of the differences between social classes. On one hand is a self-reliant, hardworking and optimistic culture that invests in education and the future. The other is a consumer-oriented and cynical culture that blames social problems on the government. Vance’s grandmother and later the Marines teach him to expect more from himself. His years at Yale expose him to opportunities and to mentors. To Vance, these advantages separate the successful from the unsuccessful. This best seller is recommended.
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