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Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance : A Book Review

At a recent book club meeting a side conversation turned to politics. Mind you my book club is a mix of strong Republicans and Democrats, so politics are usually not brought up at book club. In trying to make sense of all that has been transpiring across our nation in recent months we decided to read the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. We were not looking for answers per say but looking to hear the thinking of a demographic different than ours. We are a group of California women, mostly over the age of 50, mostly mothers, mostly working outside of the home, mostly white, all college educated, and as I mentioned – our political views run the spectrum.

Our book club, Glasses & Glasses, was featured in a local magazine's Book Beat.
Our book club, Glasses & Glasses, was featured in a local magazine’s Book Beat.

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance : A Book Review

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance is a memoir of growing up in Ohio immersed in the hillbilly culture. While J.D. grew up in Middletown, Ohio, he was from Kentucky. His family roots were deep in the Appalachian mountains and it was in Kentucky where J.D. felt most at home reveling in his large extended family and exploring the holler with his cousins.

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance : A Book Review

This is a story of J.D. growing up and trying to make his way giving us an inside look of the culture and daily life of his family. J.D.’s family is far from the picturesque middle class family of middle America. His mother deals with addiction and men move in and out of her life in rapid succession providing J.D. with a number of step-fathers and an extensive family tree. J.D.’s grandparents play an integral role in his upbringing, but they are not without faults. They live a life full of violence and alcohol. Rages abound especially whenever they feel that their family has been slighted. Loyalty runs deep and J.D. even traces family roots back to the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud. Loyalty also dictates that family problems stay within the walls of the family home. Outsiders are not welcome and even family members that move out are no longer privy to the inner workings of the family dynamics. Violence is  hidden.

So a question is posed. How did J.D. break free from dysfunction and eventually go on to graduate from Yale Law School? J.D. takes a look at the many factors of his life – those within his family and communities, as well as the larger social influences of society. He did have a mother that insisted he have library card at a young age, a grandfather that made him practice his math, a father that offered a refuge in home free of violence and drugs, and a Sargent in the Marines that taught J.D. structure and accountability.

Did the book give our group any answers to the workings of  a culture different than ours? No, but it did provide for one of our liveliest book club discussion ever! One of our book club members from Ohio felt J.D. was basically just a braggart. Others felt that it highlights the importance of hope and the devastation to lives when hope is lost. The Superior Court Judge in our group likened the story to the many gang members that she sees in her court everyday. The educators and health care providers in the group offered ways to get involved.

I really enjoyed this book, and I am glad that I read it. It was a quick read, and it really provided me with a glimpse into a life and area of America that I am just getting to know. This is a story that leaves you thinking.

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