Book Review:  HILLBILLY ELEGY, J. D. Vance - by George Johnson, Rose City Presbyterian Church

HILLBILLY ELEGY is a book about an ignored component of American life – white, working poor. The author was reared in Middletown, OH after his family migrated from a “holler” in KY in search of a better life. Hillbilly culture was foreign to the family’s new environment causing difficulties in adjustment. His greater family, however, was largely successful in achieving financial gain until the “rust belt” phenomenon destroyed the economy of the city. Vance’s immediate family was dysfunctional. His mother was incapable of motherhood, and he was essentially reared by a “crotchety” grandmother who had the most influence is his life.

Vance has been successful in leaving his life of generational poverty and overcoming childhood “demons” that still haunt him. He now is a successful lawyer with a law degree from Yale. How did he succeed when many friends are dead or in Jail - questions he dwells on throughout the book as he describes the story of his life? While reading HILLBILLY ELEGY one feels how he escaped hopelessness and lack of direction through hard work and strength from his grandmother and sister. The reader understands how the social capital of his hillbilly and poverty culture was inadequate to aid his advancement, especially when he entered law school at Yale.

Why read the book? The value of the book is not to learn the history of an interesting man or a culture strange to us. It explains much about life in an environment about which most of us are completely ignorant. Vance provides, importantly from a personal perspective, an eloquent and coherent description of life’s challenges in overcoming poverty. Why has the white, poor, working class turned away from the Democratic Party and why does a person like Donald Trump appeal to them? These are questions we all need to consider and explore as we work to overcome poverty. His insights are invaluable.

Thoughtful analysis of his book (and his interviews in the media available on the internet) are necessary for all to understand the complexities of our life today.

George S. Johnson, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church

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