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Hillbilly Elegy Book Review

Hillbilly Elegy Book Review

By Amanda Colleen Williams

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is the story of author J.D. Vance’s journey from poor white kid rooted in backwoods Kentucky to Yale educated lawyer, and all the head stuff that goes with it.

The book reads like a fiction novel, as the author dives right into his childhood experiences, many of them sad, but punctuated by plenty of hillbilly hilarity.

Mamaw, Vance’s maternal grandmother who raised him and big sister Lindsay, is the usual source of entertainment in her role as caregiver and genuine hillbilly character. She and her partner Papaw are the real stars of this memoir, as they provide not only stability for the young J.D., but also loads of colorful backstory.

Product of Depression era Appalachia coal country, Vance’s kin, the Blantons, make up the core of “Bloody Breathitt,” near Jackson, Kentucky, with its infamous Hatfield and McCoy style hillbilly feuding. “J-dot” does a fine job describing the Blanton/Vance exploits without violating rule number one of the hillbilly credo: “Never talk to strangers about family. Never.”

The exploration of Vance’s changing world view and development toward maturity is the main hook of the story. Elegy describes a poor white kid, whose addicted, troubled mother’s love for reading and Mamaw’s insistence on study led him to pursue education as his ticket out of poverty, and into productive upward mobility, the pinnacle of which has hardly been reached in the author’s thirty-something-year-old life.

Military training and “Mamaw rule” helped to instill the necessary willpower and discipline that led to success first at Ohio State, then on to Yale Law School with a scholarship.

Guidance from respected mentors along the way, including an honest professor, alumni, and veterans networks continue to steer him toward greater realization of his potential, not only as an author, but as a venture capitalist and practical philanthropist.

Some of the highlights from the book include Mamaw’s letter to J.D. at Marine’s bootcamp, which cannot be quoted here due to profanity. It is, however, belly-achingly hilarious to read aloud, and is very much in line with her “hillbilly terminator” nickname.

Another highlight, aside from the storytelling, is the academic perspective Vance brings to the issues of public policy for rural poverty alleviation measures, and especially the culturally insensitive foster care practices.

Specifically, some social workers fail to recognize the important role extended family (grandparents, aunts and uncles) play in hillbilly child rearing.

Often, children are removed from homes unnecessarily when they could be left in the care of close relatives who care for and love them, instead of with strangers who are paid.

With drug addiction, childhood hunger and other serious issues mounting, Vance’s book is a necessary wake-up call for practical solutions–not just throwing money at the problem, as is sometimes the case.

Hillbilly Elegy is an important book that’s also a lot of fun to read. If you haven’t yet, you should pick up a copy. It is highly recommended for anyone who ever struggled to understand what it’s like for “cultural emigrants” in the United States social class system.


Suitable for teens and older. Contains profanity, mild sexual references and non-graphic description of violence. Biography – Social Studies – Motivational Personal Memoir.

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