Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis

Book - 2016
Average Rating:
Rate this:
Vance, a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, provides an account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America's white working class. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.'s grandparents were "dirt poor and in love," and moved north from Kentucky's Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance's grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America.
Publisher: New York, NY : Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, [2016]
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780062300546
Characteristics: 264 pages ; 24 cm


From Library Staff

In this word-of-mouth hit, Vance relates his troubled upbringing, bouncing from home to home but ultimately saved by his tough-as-nails (and foul-mouthed) grandmother who provided some stability and stressed the value of education, a factor in his perhaps unlikely later success in the Ivy League.... Read More »

From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment

Dec 04, 2018

Although the genre of autobiography can tend to be ennui-inducing chronological sequence, Vance's take on his semi-unusual upbringing is both refreshing and compelling in its suspense. Without being over political or demonizing factions of American society, Hillbilly Elegy explains the plights of the often forgotten low-income whites (specifically located in the Appalachian region) and why this particular group has such low expectations for both themselves and their families. Having broken the cycle of poverty himself, Vance looks back on the specific factors that allowed him to succeed unlike many still struggling his community, giving readers a greater understanding of both hillbilly isolationist culture and justice.

ArapahoeChelsea Nov 26, 2018

Read this because it's beautiful and humane. Few storytellers cultivate empathy the way Vance does in Hillbilly Elegy; he invites the reader in to share his experiences, but never asks for our sympathy.

Nov 20, 2018

Vance has constructed this heartwarming story to sort out his conflicted feelings, the culturally ingrained emotions that, by extension, he suspects his fellow Scots-Irish Appalachians share. Vance’s feelings pretty much begin and end with family loyalty shared by residents of “the holler” in Kentucky, but inferiority and defensiveness go with him to Ohio and stay with him through years in public school, the Marine Corps, Ohio State University, Yale Law School, and the writing of his book. What is the nature of such feelings? The hillbilly harbors a “deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society…becoming more and more mainstream. …Social psychologists have shown the group belief is a powerful motivator in performance. …if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?” No amount of success can change that mindset, but J.D. and a few others in his family do counter-balance the negatives of hillbilly mindset with the positives of healthy family ties and a middle-class income. For Vance, a mentor or role model is the crucial factor. “Each [successful person] benefited from the same types of experience in one way or another. They had a family member they could count on. And they saw—from a family friend, an uncle, or a work mentor—what was available and what was possible.” His grandmother and his sister provided stability. His teachers and drill instructors guided him to new habits. He tells his story in sentences at an eighth-grade readability level that almost any reader could manage. Most of the subject matter is lightweight, even the occasional references to sources in academic literature. We get prurient incidents like the Kentucky businessman who takes an electric saw to the truck driver who insulted his sister. Vance teases us with the question: How did he do it? How did the hillbilly with no financial means graduate from Yale Law? Don’t take this story as a formula for upward mobility. We get no proportions of positives to negatives, no crucial combination needed to escape the mindset of the holler. As a result, it left me a little unsatisfied, taking away a few anecdotes but no break-through insights.

Oct 20, 2018

This book was recommended to me and something I might never have picked up. I see the ratings are all-over-the- place and I can understand why. It is more like a documentary within a story. It was very interesting for me to get a different point of very of these "Hillbillies" that I never really even thought about. This was this persons experiences that might be very different from another point of view (see below). While reading I visioned Detroit and other places where poverty has erased whole towns and helped me to make sense of these types of places. Also I could relate some of the experience of Irish communities with those features in this book.
So I can recommend the read if you want to learn something outside of your normal life experience.
Another reader recommended two books that he/she thought a better perspective of these folks: Ramp Hollow and What are you Getting Wrong about Appalachia.

Sep 30, 2018

Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s personal memoir of growing up in Appalachia, includes reflections on the decline of his community and on his struggle to rise above it. As Vance traces his evolution from insecure boy leading a precarious existence to Yale graduate with a clearly defined political sensibility, it is this evolution, with its inherent contradictions, that make Hillbilly Elegy a compelling read, especially for political junkies, and especially in light of the Trump ascendancy. Though not Vance’s intention, Hillbilly Elegy is a study in how the oppressed are seduced by their oppressors. This irony is at the heart of the memoir’s deep-seated contradiction, whereby the hillbilly community is at once lambasted by Vance as being responsible for its decline and eulogized as the victim of economic, cultural and political conditions beyond its control.

Of course, life is complicated and full of contradictions, as are individuals, all evident in this memoir; and certainly, people, are, to a degree, accountable for their failures in life. However, even though Vance cares deeply about his hillbilly community, his criticisms are harsh and his laying of blame squarely on an Appalachian community under economic siege is startling in the least. In light of the fact that this memoir has become a kind of launching pad for J.D. Vance’s political career (which is admittedly on hold at the moment), one must scrutinize his foundational ideas and the experiences that led to them – experiences that illustrate in detail how the privileged ruling class is able to enlist the support of those, including Vance, whom they have persistently oppressed. It is no small wonder that Republicans love this book. It is a primer on how to convince the poor that poverty is their fault.

Note: Since Vance credits much of his success to networking (“social capital”) it should be noted that a significant person in his network, and acknowledged at length in his memoir, is Amy Chua. Chua has been the subject of a controversy involving Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Google it.

Jul 13, 2018

Little slow to start. Good read for a new perspective on how others may be living around you. Could be a hundred pages shorter.

Jun 24, 2018

As a bewildered immigrant from Asia, I read this book trying to understand what “hillbilly" or "white trash" are all about, why billionaire Trump is embraced by some poor white Americans. I grab the book from library before a trip to California and completed the reading thru the six-hour long flight back home. It is easy to read, mesmerizing, and full of emotional impact. Strongly recommend it.
Although not yet having the full answer to my questions, after reading Hillbilly Elegy, through author’s vivid description about his chaotic childhood and ways to escape the impact of these trauma, I do have better understanding about the struggles and cultural backgrounds to entrap the “hillbilly" or “white trash” people from escaping the economic difficulties, and their cynicism and mistrust against social elites, mainstream media…etc.
The author fought against all odds of his childhood trauma and ended up a Yale Law School graduate. At the end of the book, he concludes that those problems present in his home towns may not be solved by government or policies, but more by the church or any other ways to open up the cultural enclosement and to encourage the community engagement & broad family support. A great reading!

Jun 14, 2018

I read Hillbilly Elegy for a few reasons. One, I had heard some of my friends talking about the book and it sounded interesting. Two, I usually enjoy reading memoirs, autobios, and bios. And three, I have often somewhat prided myself in that I am of Appalachian blood-my family is from West Virginia, a beautiful, mountainous area, and yes, I have many found memories of my great grandparents. I was aware of them being called hillbillies when I was very young, even though I was raised in central Ohio.

While reading Mr. Vance's descriptions of his family, I do not recall quite as colorful a language coming from my family (of course, maybe they toned it down a bit in my presence), but the family loyalty he described, yes, that was definitely present in my maternal grandparents and great grandparents.

I found quite a lot that I enjoyed about Hillbilly Elegy. I would recommend the book to others, although I would warn them, the language is on the rough side, especially for young adult readers.

I think Mr. Vance has done well for himself. He worked hard and is learning how to live a healthier inner life and a healthier family life. I hope he writes more in the future.

Jun 09, 2018

I'm not a connoisseur of memoirs so I don't know how they normally read but this was so difficult to get through, it felt like someone trying to introduce themselves for a political race. It was the typical "I came from a broken home but pulled myself up by my bootstraps" story sans nuance, struggle, or honesty. Sure his early life was difficult in some ways but it didn't feel like he really overcame much other than the loss of his family members.
I don't understand why this book was written, y'all.

May 17, 2018

This book is not Appalachia! It is the story of one family. There is so much more to be said about the thriving culture, history and perseverance of Appalachian communities. If you are looking for a book that explains the last election check out The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America... it is from 2013, but does a great job of depicting the struggles of poor and rural people over the past several decades

View All Comments


Add Notices

May 07, 2018

Other: Topics: Inequality, Race, Religion, Education, Mental Health (Substance Abuse)

May 05, 2018

Frightening or Intense Scenes: Frightening and intense scenes.

May 05, 2018

Sexual Content: Strong sexual content.

May 05, 2018

Violence: Strong violence.

May 05, 2018

Coarse Language: Strong language.


Add Age Suitability

May 04, 2018

LThomas_Library thinks this title is suitable for 17 years and over

Mar 17, 2017

runningbeat thinks this title is suitable for 16 years and over


Add a Summary

Jun 28, 2017

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck. A deeply moving memoir, with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number

Subject Headings


Find it at CPL

To Top