Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance was released in the right place at the right time–June 2016, in the midst of a heated presidential campaign. As surprised liberals tried to understand the minds of the working poor and reasons why they overwhelmingly voted for Trump, J.D. Vance’s book became part of the national conversation.
Is it possible J.D. Vance knew this would happen when he conceived the idea for his book? Probably not. It takes years to write a book and navigate the publishing process, so the timing of the two was most likely coincidental.
But why did this book make it big and others about Appalachia or the working poor did not? Because, I believe, J.D. Vance had a unique voice in a polarized world. With one foot in the white, working class Appalachia orbit, and the other in the educated-elite orbit, he was a cultural ambassador of the two worlds. He knew them both well, but didn’t completely fit in either.
Before I started the book, I had been following online conversations about J.D. Vance and it became apparent – if an author writes a book with opposing points of view and it becomes wildly successful, it will be criticized, scrutinized, and judged for all the things it was not, or could have been. Just google ‘Hillbilly Elegy criticism’ and you can read the conversations. The comments made me wonder–Is this the kind of scrutiny an author can look forward to if they write from the perspective of the white working-class poor, and readers, who come from more sophisticated upbringings, think you should have written something else? I was curious, so I read the book for myself to form my own opinion.
It soon became clear to me – although J.D. Vance navigated two worlds, his book was clearly written in response to questions, assumptions, and stereotypes that came from people in his latter world (the educated-elite world). He wrote the book in an attempt to give another perspective – an insider’s perspective – of why things are the way they are in white working-class America – and what could, realistically, be done to improve it.
He talked about his personal experiences with ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, and summarized current studies related to how ACEs impact the physical and mental health of an adult. It could be said that – when deciding which personal stories to include in his book, J.D. Vance outlined some of the ACEs he experienced, then paired them with ways in which he was able to overcome them. Maybe he also listed the questions or assumptions people in his elite world asked him about his hillbilly world – and detailed ways in which those assumptions were incorrect.
He talks about the people in his life who mentored him, who made sure he was safe and did his homework, instilled discipline in him, helped him leave his home environment and see ways other people lived. He suggested that you, the reader, give your time and mentorship to a child instead of donating pajamas or junk they don’t need or use.
One scene toward the end of the book struck me. A Yale Law school professor suggested to J.D. that he was accepted into the program as a charity case and a graduate from an Ohio state school did not deserve to be on the same playing field as graduates from Ivy League colleges. But J.D.’s can-do attitude instilled in him by his mammaw helped him transcend that label and prove his professor wrong. He became one of the most successful law students in his class – and wrote a bestselling book enlightening his new colleagues to the inner world of a misunderstood population. Five Stars, J.D.
Learn more about the book here.