One of the things I find most difficult about reviewing memoirs is questioning the narrative. Of course, I do it when something doesn’t ring true or if I find part of the story particularly notable (see my review of Wild), but sometimes a story is more complicated than it first appears and the complexity allows you to see one viewpoint while feeling others are still there to be examined. Such is the case with Hillbilly Elegy.

From the publisher’s summary:
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful 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

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. 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, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. 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. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

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.

I have long been fascinated with the culture of Appalachia, and that is what drew me to this book.  Vance doesn’t pull punches in describing his family and his growing up.  I understand the fierce family loyalty, and I appreciate the nuances of the poverty and fighting to get ahead.

But I really have mixed feelings about this one.  Vance is right to a large extent- we should not expect anyone else to get us out of poverty and we should work for what we  want.  I understand his frustration at his co-worker who had a good job and a baby on the way yet was perpetually calling out of work and walking away from a good, reliable job.  But I also try to realize that my perspective on this comes from a place of privilege.  I’m not sure that there isn’t a societal component.  I don’t know if anyone  has an answer to Appalachia.  I don’t know that gumption is enough to get you out of this situation if you don’t have some resources to show you other ways of living; how to seek out opportunities; what to do when every step forward you take, you’re pushed back three.  This is one of those subjects where people like to point fingers, but few want to sit down and have the hard conversations.  And even when we do, where is the tipping point between personal responsibility between societal aid?  What do  you do when cultural influences and history work against your own best interest?

If you look up commentary on Hillbilly Elegy,  you’ll see both praise and criticism for Vance’s story.  I agree with the New York Times review that regardless of where you come down on this issue- and I’m not convinced there is a single right side- it’s good that we have the discussion.  I hope you’ll read Hillbilly Elegy  and I hope you’ll continue to think about it after you read the last page.