Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

By Megan Thomas

After finishing this memoir of JD Vance and his upbringing as a self-described hillbilly from Kentucky, I was struck by its brilliance and immediately started reading about the author and other people’s perspectives of the book. Rookie error…

As it transpires, the author’s values and politics are dodgy and hypocritical. I’d recommend you read the article “The Moral Collapse of JD Vance” published on The Atlantic if you’re interested in that. Personally, the book has been tainted for me – while I think personal politics can be to some degree removed from art, I’m not sure that applies to memoir.

Regardless, I’m going to review the book independently, because I had fully formed an opinion of it before I went down the Google rabbit hole, and leave you to decide whether you want to try read it as a stand-alone commentary of Appalachian poverty and upward mobility, or whether you’ll pass.

Growing up in the hills of Kentucky in a family which many might call “redneck” or “white trash”, JD Vance’s graduation from Yale Law School defied the odds. It was fascinating to read about Vance’s perspectives on prejudice and what the author considers a disregard for the white working classes (whose disenfranchisement, arguably, led to the rise of Trump). Regardless of whether you agree with this sentiment, his violent and dysfunctional upbringing in a broken home held together by a loveably “crazy” grandmother is inspiring and tragic. Agreeing with the book’s internal politics isn’t necessary for profound empathy to be sparked and there is a lot of insight into modern politics to be read in his experience. Reading was a “slice of life”, and it was as entertaining as it was enlightening.

The next question is: does the film adaptation do it justice?


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