Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Rating: 3 stars
Just a heads up: this review is going to be more personal than most because I am from the Rust Belt, the area Vance describes.
I’m conflicted about this book. I wanted to love it because it basically describes my home town. I grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, a town in both Appalachia and the Rust Belt. High rates of drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and unemployment are common.
I have to admit that I did have a great upbringing for my area. Unlike Vance, I had two working parents while growing up. My dad went to college and my mom was a nurse. Neither of them ever had issues with drugs, but my older brother had a serious alcohol addiction (and a wrecked car plus 3 DUIs) for years before he turned 21.
While my parents were better off than a lot of people in the area, they still had some knowledge gaps similar to Vance’s family. When I found out I got into a good school in another state (not Ivy, but close) my dad asked me why I didn’t just go to our state school (Ohio State). When he realized it was a private school his next thought went to money: we can’t afford it. It ended up costing almost nothing thanks to their generous financial aid. I researched it on the internet before applying, but it took the financial aid package coming in the mail to convince my dad.
I can empathize with so many parts of Vance’s story even though I thankfully avoided most of the roughest parts. However, his characterization of the Rust Belt left out some of the more unsavory aspects that can’t be spun into “hillbilly justice” or a homegrown reliance.
Steubenville’s main claim to fame besides Dean Martin is the infamous Steubenville Rape Case. I still can’t believe how many people living there thought a girl would lie about being raped (despite photographic proof) just to harm the football team. Yet it was a widespread belief. Also, there was a conversation overheard in a restaurant about whether or not you could “rape a whore,” and that girl was clearly hoping for something when she hung out with those guys. That is one thing I remember most about home that Vance doesn’t cover: the sexism that fed the rape culture (I also describe the abstinence only education we had in my post on The Purity Myth).
Another fact that Vance left out of this book but was rampant in my slice of the Rust belt was the prejudice. It was prejudice against anyone different. When I came out as atheist in high school a couple classmates never spoke to me again. I was told that without the love of god in my heart I would only be good for a life of crime. The few kids I knew who were openly gay managed to find a group of close and accepting friends, but the majority of our high school had no problems calling them slurs when they walked down the hall. When a white person was on drugs it was a common tragedy, but when it was a black person the common thought was it was to be expected (tragedy wasn’t used in that case). I have never encountered prejudice to that extent since I’ve moved away (although the only other places I’ve lived are Chicago and Tampa).
I do agree that our area is overlooked sometimes when people talk about our country’s troubles. I also agree that we need to teach kids to aspire to more than their current circumstances. It’s hard to teach kids that they can reach the stars when so many others around them crashed and burned. All they can see is the wreckage as the people able to pull themselves out of the area leave and don’t come back.
Vance’s experiences after leaving the Rust Belt are something I didn’t experience. My college, while not Yale, had a fair share of upper-middle class and upper class students, and all of the students I became friends with were definitely from wealthier families compared to mine, but I never felt like they were judging me. I did feel like I was out of place, but that was overcome thanks to my friends openness and generosity. I may have been lucky with my friend group, though. There were so many times I had no idea what to do, like internships, recruiting events, networking, or even eating foods from other countries, but my friends were willing to explain so I never felt like I was going it alone. That would have been horrible, and was extremely tough for Vance.
I recommend this to anyone unfamiliar with the Rust Belt or Appalachia and wants to get a personal perspective from a survivor.