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J. D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy

Donald Trump probably deserves a bit of the credit for this book's popularity. It was published in 2016 when the Great Trump Freakout was well under way, and was often described as providing an explanation for some of Trump's support. There's this New York Times review, for instance: "In ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ a Tough Love Analysis of the Poor Who Back Trump." Or this one from The Guardian: "Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance review – does this memoir really explain Trump’s victory?" These were among the top results from a Google search on the book's title.

If you aren't aware of the book, either of those reviews will give you a fairly good idea of what it's about, in spite of their emphasis on explaining Trump. On the other hand, this review in The New Republic borders on the bizarre. First the reviewer distorts, to say the least, or falsifies, to say more, what Vance says; then she goes off on a long campaign speech for the Democrats. It's something of a textbook case of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Or I suppose I should just say Political Obsession Syndrome: the actual book under consideration aside, she seems to see most of life, good or bad, as being an effect of which government is the cause. 

This focus on Trump and on politics is odd and misleading because the book is not about politics, and only glances occasionally in that direction. It deals with a subculture, which in the deeper South and some other parts of the country is called redneck, but in the hills of Kentucky is...hillbilly. At any rate it's the proud and truculent subculture of the Scots-Irish, the poorer members of which are not doing very well these days.

The subtitle is perfectly accurate, and should perhaps have been more attended to by some of these reviewers: A Memoir of a Family and Culture In Crisis. The book is about a specific family with serious problems, the extent to which those problems are characteristic of their culture, and the author's own fairly narrow escape from them. The focus is, you might say, internal: it's especially on the self-inflicted wounds of alcoholism and drug addiction, and the damage that ripples out from them. Vance recognizes the difficulty of the historical, economic, and social situation in which these people find themselves, but he doesn't view them as helpless victims. No one is forcing them to drink or take pills or shoot heroin, and no one can force them to stop. 

When he steps out from his narrative into a broader view, it is to consider the ways in which the culture which he calls "hillbilly" does and does not--mostly does not--prepare and encourage its members to thrive in the society which, for better or worse, is the one that currently exists. His concern is to tell the particular story, not to explain it in general historical and political terms. The tendency of reviewers to turn it into a mostly political document may have boosted its sales, but it fostered a certain misreading.

Anyway, I have to say that although I enjoyed the book I was a little disappointed in it. I guess I was expecting a more literary work, a more artistically pleasing and interesting one. From that point of view, it's somewhat flat, straightforward but not especially vivid or rich. Still, I'd recommend it fairly enthusiastically if you're interested in the subject at all, especially if you know people like this. Or if you're one of them, in which case you may have a quarrel with Vance: if you're truly one of them, you don't take criticism of your people very well. That's not a putdown, as it's somewhat true of me. I'm not of the hillbilly/redneck class, but I guess I'm genetically pretty close, though with a large admixture of English. And although I am a timid person and don't actually respond with violence to criticism of my people, I'd sort of like to. 

Hillbilly_Elegy(By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

And by the way, J.D. Vance became Catholic this past weekend. (The link is to Rod Dreher's account of the event--Dreher is a friend of Vance.) That's good news. There isn't much about religion in the book, but the glimpses that do appear are of an extremely individualist and probably ahistorical Protestantism. 

Sometime before too long I think I'm going to read James Webb's book about the history and influence of the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting.


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I read the book when it came out. I’m very glad to hear he became Catholic

I recommended it to my wife and she's listening to the audio version, which is read by Vance himself. She says he doesn't have a southern/hillbilly/Appalachian accent, that he has the "TV accent" that he comments on in the book. I wonder whether he made an effort in that direction when he was growing up or it just happened more or less naturally.

We are developing a podcast (it hasn't gone live yet). When I heard the first show I was amazed how American my accent has become.

that happened entirely without my knowing it or willing it. I said, maybe now is the time to get an American passport.

I think for a musical person, to change one's accent would have to be a conscious choice. For an unmusical person, who doesn't really hear sounds, it would just rub off

But then you weren't ashamed of your accent. Southerners tend to be. My children don't have southern accents, or not much of one. I don't think it's fully a choice, but I don't think it's entirely unconscious, either. One is aware that one's accent is considered a mark of stupidity.

Imitation is natural. When I came home from my first summer out of the south people said I talked funny, and that was totally unconscious imitation of others. I guess that's what happened with you.

Who's the "we" of this podcast? Sounds interesting.

Im doing a podcast together with the people in World Religions / World Church in my little old midwestern University. We have recorded three so far, and the first one goes on on Labour day, I believe. We are recording three more on 23 August, including an interview with DAvid Bentley Hart and Robert Altar (which Im conducting so if you listen you will hear my new American accent)

Sounds interesting. Though I had to look up Robert Alter (that's who showed up for "Robert Altar").

I posted a message about "Educated." Did it get lost?


I guess so. Really lost. It's not in the spam catcher.

And too bad, because I'm sure it was interesting. Took me a minute to remember what book you're talking about. Relevant to Elegy, I guess.

Re-post Janet! I read Educated so am interested in whatever you might say. Have not read the Hillbilly book.

I had posted about Educated by Tara Westover, which has been on the NYT non-fiction best seller list for 77 weeks and has been #1 for some time. I first noticed the book because we have a list of the NYT best sellers on the counter of the library where I was working. Also, someone called and said she has been on the hold list for a while, and asked how long it would be. There were 17 people ahead of her. We do, however, have these books that the library rents called Lucky Day Books. They are 7-day books and can't be put on hold, and if you happen to be there when somebody brings a book back, that's your lucky day, and about a week ago, it was mine.

The book has been compared to because it is the biography of girl who is growing up in a dysfunctional, rural family, who manages to get a PhD from Cambridge. There are a lot of differences, though.

Westover's family lives on a mountain in Idaho and her father made his living by building farm buildings when times where good, but dealing in scrap metal when they were not. They are Mormons, but they are much more like very Fundamentalist Protestants, and survivalists.

When I was first reading the book, I felt like I was reading something that took place in the 30s, but she is only a year older than my youngest child.

Her mother attended Brigham Young University for a while, so she was educated enough to homeschool her children, but besides teaching them to read, she didn't do much. (Her older children went to school for a while.)

Westover paints a picture of dangerous childhood where the family worked with her father and had terrible accidents. Her father does not believe in doctors, so they were treated by their herbalist/mid-wife mother.

Eventually she decides to study hard for the ACT and manages to get into BYU. She is very far behind everyone else, but manages to study a lot and graduate and get grants and scholarships for higher education at Harvard and Cambridge.

Her greatest struggle, though was getting past the fundamentalist, survivalist mindset of her youth, and the control of her father.

This book is well-written and compelling--I read it in two days. I did begin to wonder at some point, though, how accurate it is. For instance, at one point, she talks about making a decision to finally get immunized when she is in England, and I wonder how someone gets to England without immunizations. You have to have them, don't you? You have to have them to go to college, right?

And so, looking around, I see that her parents and some of her siblings deny some of the things she says, but two of her brothers support her. I wonder if it could be a difference of perception, but then these are extreme differences. She describes one of her brothers as being extremely violent.

Stu--So, I don't know, and I would love to hear what you think.


I pretty much agree with what you say, Janet. It was VERY compelling reading, and I also read it in just a few days, over a weekend I think.

Had not thought about the immunization question, but that is a good one.

You just never know with people and their childhood memories, Mac made similar statements when discussing Liars Club I think. But it does seem that for the most part what she writes has some truth in it, wouldn't you think?

I thought the last section was not as interesting as the first two. Just seemed to be a lot of flying back and forth from London to Salt Lake City. Of course by this time she has "escaped" so to speak, so the level of tenseness is not there.

I live just 180 miles east of Salt Lake City, and not terribly far from where Westover grew up. An LDS co-worker recommended the book to me. Also, went to an educational conference in New Orleans back in April and Westover was the initial key-note speaker. It was a very big letdown, though not really her fault. The software company running the show talked about themselves for about 1.5 hours (and how great they are), then they brought Tara Westover out and she did not even get to just speak, but really had a short interview with one of the software people. It was a letdown, and she wasn't asked anything you would not have already known if you read the book, which I had. She is very composed and presents herself well.

I would recommend it to just about anyone though - those first two parts are kind of amazing as you shudder your way through it all.

My co-worker that recommended it to me has also pointed me to an online herbal site that Westover's mother runs. :)

I just read what I wrote and I mis-represented where I live in relation to SE Idaho, which is further than Salt Lake of course. Meant to say something like not much further...probably doesn't matter but I am curious to drive up there sometime and look around.

I have not looked at the herbal site. I have looked at the mom's Facebook page.

My original comment was much shorter. I got carried away


Oh, well I'm glad you didn't have to write all that twice.

Seems like there might be a natural tendency for memoir writers to embellish things to make them more dramatic, more novelistic. As for the immunizations, I don't think they're necessarily required for all foreign travel. However, they generally are for college. It's possible the requirement isn't very well enforced at some schools. I know non-compliance was/is a problem at the college I work(ed) for. We went to a lot of trouble trying to keep anyone who hadn't provided immunization records from being able to register online.

My reservation about Mary Karr's book, btw, was not that I doubted the truth of the big terrible things she described, but that I found the amount of remembered detail implausible.

BYU being a church-based LDS school it is possible they don't require immunizations for the more fundamentalist practitioners.

With Educated it cannot all be fabrication, but certainly exaggerations are something everyone writing a memoir might do, positives and negatives.

I don't remember American PhD students having to be vaccinated to come to Aberdeen.

I do think most of it is true, and it is a great read.


Another book I really liked, which has been at the top of the hardcover fiction list for 48 weeks is Where the Crawdads Sing.


I haven't read that but just the other day saw a blurb for another book by the same author, claiming it's "Even better than...!"

I watched The Wrath of Khan and its laughably bad. The mullets

I do recommend Our Boys For anyone who has Amazon prime or HBO

Requires an HBO subscription even with Prime. Like most HBO stuff.

Prime is getting to be useless.


I wouldn't say that. But the whole streaming video thing is getting frustrating, because it's so fragmented. You can't just subscribe to Netflix and get 85% or more of what you might be interested in.

But speaking of Prime: that Tom Clancy-Jack Ryan thing they've been pushing is very good for what it is, an action-espionage-thriller kind of thing. Some gory stuff and two obtrusive sex scenes.

I thought I was getting the HBO via Prime. At first it seemed to turn me away but then it relented. Try and ‘buy’ it on your amazon page, not on the TV. It worked for me

It doesn't have a buy or rent option, either on the Roku or on Amazon's web site. Subscribing to HBO is the only choice either way.

I can get Boyz on Amazon Prime.


Our Boys?

Oh! It's two different things. I couldn't figure out why anybody wanted to watch Boyz.


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