Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Posted in Blog by - June 01, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When it came out in the middle of the feverish 2016 presidential campaign, J. D. Vance‘s Hillbilly Elegy was cannily marketed as insight into the mysterious mind of the Trump voter. That’s not wholly untrue, but its subtitle is a better description: “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” To me the book is at heart a raw and honest look at a childhood that was, to employ a non-clinical term, a shit show.

Vance’s story hit me close to home. He and I both grew up in the Rust Belt. His grandparents were poor people from the Appalachia region of Kentucky who migrated to Ohio in search of a better life. My maternal grandfather was a second-generation Irish coal miner in eastern Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, a subrange of the Appalachians, and my mother, one of his 10 children, migrated to Buffalo, New York, in search of opportunity. (Note: It was narrow victories in Ohio and Pennsylvania, along with Michigan, that put Trump in the White House.)

I was raised in middle-class comfort, and I romanticized my mom’s background (a few years ago I even did so professionally, editing and producing her blog of small-town American wisdom). It took Vance to make me realize the negative impact of her childhood poverty.
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The book’s strength is Vance’s candor about his emotional scars; its weakness is the thin patina of sociology he paints over them. To my eye his much-touted dissection of the motivations of the Trump voter boils down to garden-variety class resentment. But as an evocative self-portrait of a man who overcame daunting impediments to graduate from Yale Law School and become a successful author and commentator at a young age, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a resounding success.

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Rick Schindler grew up in the idyllic northern suburbs of Buffalo, N.Y., a psychic stone’s throw from Archie Andrews’ hometown of Riverdale. His writing career began at age 15 when he won a New York Times award for a short story published in his high school literary magazine. At 19 he interned on the copy desk of the Buffalo News, where he discovered a knack for headline writing that has served him in good stead until the present day. He went on to a checkered media career that has included stints at HBO, TV Guide and NBC News Digital, where today he is a writer and editor for the website of the venerable American TV show TODAY. Schindler shared a 2012 Sigma Delta Chi award in online reporting with NBC News’ Bob Dotson for the “American Story with Bob Dotson” features on TODAY.com. He also won two 2012 awards in headline writing from the American Copy Editors Society, another in 2014 and two more in 2015. Schindler lives in White Plains, New York.