Review: Hillbilly Elegy

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So, this book came to me through an interesting episode with my pastor.  You see, we had recently moved to Virginia and we were speaking with the pastor of a church we had been attending.  When our pastor discovered we were from Kentucky, he immediately talked about this book.  In fact, he mentioned it three times to us over the course of a few months.  So, I decided to check out this book.  From the pastor’s description, the book was very intriguing.  Incidentally, right after ordering the book, I saw the author on a news program.  Doubly intrigued. After all, you don’t hear much about Kentuckians outside of the Food Network.

This book is a somber read, although I have to admit, pretty funny from time to time, in a way that only Hillbillies and those around them can truly understand.  This book is about the author’s life, and some of the lives of those around him.  He makes generalizations about hillbillies that are probably all true.  And he does concede that not all hillbillies are that way.  I find the author very honest in this aspect.  Where many would blanket generalizations on the Appalachian people, this author does not.  He acknowledges that people can be exceptions. As much as someone can be, he remains open and honest about the problems he sees.

However, despite the exceptions, there is a common thread throughout these people.  I had never truly stopped to think about it for long.  Not because I didn’t care, or that I didn’t think it worth my time, but because that was just the way they were.  Although I am not a hillbilly, they’ve been around me for a good portion of my life.  It was just their way.  I didn’t understand it, but after this book, I do.

J.D. Vance makes an interesting argument about how the way someone thinks will determine their future.  Although this seems like a very simplistic thesis, it explains a lot about the hillbilly way.  He takes it a step further and explains how the policies of the government have exacerbated the negative mentality of the hillbilly people; how these people, already considered outsiders socially, are now feeling so disenfranchised that they are beginning to feel discarded, further negating their upward movement in society.

Although not a political book, it is easy to see how the governmental policies post-Reagan have driven this sector of people further and further into poverty, negative thinking, addictions, broken homes, and despair.  Throwing money at the problem has not fixed anything, only made it worse.  Good intentioned people have toiled in vain because they lack the understanding of the hillbilly mindset.

But in all of this, there is a bright light.  The author managed to persevere and move himself out of poverty and the cycle he grew up in.  He innumerates the many people along the way who invested in him and helped get him on the right path.  These people helped him become a successful marine, a Yale graduate, a lawyer, a non-abusive husband that stuck with his marriage, a sympathetic man, and an addiction-free citizen.

The only conclusion you can come away with is that government is not the answer.  Not for the hillbilly.  Although the government can help, it takes a change of mindset. Only the determination to become something different will bring a person out of this cycle. Those changes happen when honest and sincere people invest their time and efforts into building relationships and helping.

So often, the people in my home state are unfairly categorized as backward, trashy, unruly, and not worth someone’s time.  They are none of these things.  They live hard lives, make decisions, and suffer consequences.  They may be different, but they are people.  People who are forgotten by politicians, discarded by society, and looked down upon by the elite.  People who make bad decisions because they have little to no one to look up to that makes good decisions. People who can’t see the opportunity in front of them because of the dismal outlook in their head.

I recommend this book to anyone who works in (or is interested) in social policies/economics.  Also for anyone in education fields, counseling, child advocacy, and the like.  It is important to understand the people that you are trying to help; whether you are a teacher, a politician, or an everyday citizen.

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