Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy




“Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life.”
― J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

I was at a football game back in November and encountered a friend that I enjoy sharing conversation about the latest books that we’ve read.  We both seem to enjoy books about leadership, productivity, etc.  We shared a few titles and then he asked me if I’d read Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance.  I had not heard of the book, but he gave me a quick synopsis and I felt like it might be something I was interested in.  I made the mistake of not writing down the title and quickly forgot about it.  Then, as I was looking over people’s lists of favorite books from 2016, I found that most everyone had this book on their list…or it was on their list to read in 2017.  I decided I needed to check it out.

Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating look at JD Vance’s childhood and adolescence spent in the hills of Kentucky and Ohio.  The word Elegy means simply “to look back with sorrow”.  It’s related to the word eulogy, just not quite as hopeful.  Vance’s writing style is very appealing as he is a great storyteller.  There were so many times in this book that I felt like I was right there with him and could see, smell, and touch what was going on.  The book is a heartbreaking dissertation on the ills of the hillbilly people while also painting a picture of hope of what could be.  The very qualities and situations that make the outlook for this culture seem so bleak, are essentially the glue that holds it all together.  Vance has truly broken the mold in the way that he has turned out, but he has held on to the values that he has picked up along the way.

This book is very applicable no matter where you grew up simply because it is a story about families, family dynamics, and the culture that forms around similar ideas and values.  There is much to be celebrated about where we come from and how that equips us with where we are going in life.  Along with that comes things that are beyond on our control that can set us on a trajectory far beyond anything we could have ever even thought to imagine…positively or negatively.  Vance’s book gives hope that things can work out positively if you use your circumstances as a stepping stone and don’t forget where you came from.

A friend of mine read this book along with me.  We’ve had great conversations talking about who would play each of these people in a movie.  I’m hoping for something that includes Dwight Yoakam, Reba McEntire, and Thelma Harper from Mama’s family.

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