Monday, April 10, 2017

Hillbilly Ellegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis -- J.D. Vance -------------------------- 3 Stars

I didn't hear much about Hillbilly Elegy until someone mentioned it recently and I checked it out online. Well, apparently I was really missing out as it was a NY Times bestseller and has very solid reviews. But, did it earn a 5 star rating based on the Bookmark that Book criteria?  Read on to find out; or just see above in the title :)

The basic premise, as you may gather from the title, is an autobiographical story about the author's life (and family).  He tells a narrative about growing up in Appalachia and rural Ohio and then going to the Army and working through Yale Law School. The story, however, focuses mostly about his life growing up as, he calls it, a "hillbilly". The story is a decent read but I did not feel that engaged and excited to pick it up day after day. I actually thought the story got more interesting as he got older and "made it out" but I found it a slog to get through the first half.

As I was pondering why it was that I did enjoy or get excited about this book as much as others, I think I began to really get a better sense of why this book is so fascinating to people. Mostly, I believe it stems from a deep fascination about our culture and the differences between different groups of people. Be it, economic, geographic, ethic, racial, whatever, our country seems to be become more heterogeneous and "sorted" than ever before (side note, The Big Sort is a great book explaining how/why this is happening).  I think that this book does a fantastic job of painting a picture about a group of people that many in America do not understand or look down upon. Certainly, after Donald Trump's surprise victory, a book of this type has to be checked out to help provide greater insight for those that can not or do not understand how he won. As a person living in a liberal bubble outside Washington D.C., I loved how this book made me better understand and empathize with a group of people who live no more than a few hundred miles from where I do and how different their lives are then mine.

However, that empathy can only go so far. Part of my frustration with the book, was certainly the subject matter. Specifically, all the challenges that go with those that Vance describes as "hillbilly". Many of them are well intentioned and kind, while many others are not. Many are not well educated and many have very un-informed opinions about many things. Some discriminate, some are racist, some are addicts and some are alcoholics. Again, many are not. I think Vance and I both struggle with the most is the mindset of many. Unlike many of his family and friends, the author did not expect a handout nor feel that it was anyone's job but his own to make something of himself. His focus on hard work and effort led him to where he is. In fact, the chances of him making it to Yale law school were almost non-existent based on his circumstances. However, the reason he has accomplished so much is a lesson for many in similar situations.

Overall, this book is great read in the macro sense. The themes are interesting, the social commentary valuable, and the overall message incredibly important. Just don't plan to be blown away by some of the very ordinary stories he tells or his writing style.

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