Great Read: Hillbilly Elegy

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Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, was on my nightstand for months before I got to it. After a handful of people insisted it was a “must read”, I finally took it off the shelf last week. This book offers up a fascinating look at what it means to be truly poor and living in America. It highlights the drastic negative long term affects of being raised in a community where verbal and physical abuse are the norm. Vance tells the tale of a culture in crisis – helping the reader to understand why poor, white Americans feel little hope in changing their circumstances and why. It also sheds light on the many positive attributes serving in the military can offer an individual with few other options – and how his time in the Marine Corps eventually allowed him to move on to college and then Yale Law School. Vance’s story, told from birth to adulthood, is one of great darkness and light as he introduces you to family and friends who both helped and hindered him along the way.

I often feel it’s easy to wrap our heads around the dire poverty that stares at us through shanty towns, sunken in eyes, and bellies that protrude from gaunt ribcages in third world countries. We distance ourselves from the tragedy, because it happens across the seas in lands so far away we convince ourselves there is little we can do to change it. But when it happens right here, in our country, it’s not so easy to dismiss. That is unless we pull the wool over our eyes and pretend not to see it. If you read this book, you can no longer believe it isn’t happening. Vance details his life and the lives of those around him growing up in the hills of Kentucky and then Ohio with such honesty and insight that you walk away wondering how this is happening in our “backyard”, and what we and they might do to change it. Many are getting sub-par educations, and living on nothing but food stamps and junk food. Their medical care is inconceivable to those of us living in affluent communities – teeth literally rot out of children’s mouths because they eat nothing but sugar and almost never see a dentist.

Vance tells a jaw-dropping tale of what it was to grow up a Hillbilly. At times funny, often terrifying, and always honest – he acknowledges that even in the darkness of addiction, poverty, and violence – there is still love, laughter, and fierce loyalty. And those are the things that would eventually get him to continue his trek into upward mobility. Vance credits his grandmother Mamaw, who swears like a truck driver but loves him and believes in him fiercely and defensively, with his ultimate success. I walked away with a much better sense of what is happening outside of my privileged neighborhood in Connecticut, and for that I am grateful. The other thing I didn’t see coming was Vance’s insights into what it means to grow up as a child of abuse, in a home with an addict. His chapter on “adverse childhood experiences” was eye-opening, and in it an adult Vance details his efforts to heal from the pain of his childhood decades after the abuse had occurred. His words will resonate with all people who grew up experiencing trauma. I now know why so many people rave about this book. It’s truly a must read for any and all wanting to know how the “other half” lives.

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