Contrary to what you might first think, J. D. isn’t short for just one thing because the author’s name changes twice in the book – the first is explained on page 63 and the second, not until much later. In fact, much of Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is a contradiction. As a boy, he lived in a working class neighborhood with people, many of whom did not work, or couldn’t keep a job for long enough to get themselves out of debt or off the social welfare programs that supported them. Jay-dot-dee-dot shuttled back and forth between his serial monogamist, drug-abusing mother and the grandparents who were like his surrogates and yet, theirs was a message of strong family values, except that he was often placed in abusive situations, or at the very least dangerous ones. His biological father said he loved him and yet he gave him up for adoption when things became too challenging. As the product of a proud-for-no-reason background, no one expected him to emerge and rise, and yet he did, following the path many young men take when there are no other options, choosing the military for the life it can give them, even while they risk that very future by enlisting.
There is much to enjoy in this book – the author speaks candidly about his family, his background, his perspective on the cycle of poverty and the attitudes that keep the “hillbillies” within that cycle. He reveals family secrets, even though he admits that the grandparents he lauds within the pages would abhor the exposure. In chronicling his experiences, he paints a picture that if he could escape, any child could do the same with the same whit and purpose. And yet, he also acknowledges that if not for the varied influences in his life, he might not have escaped either.
Parts of this book are very political. As a former marine and employee for more than one politician, Vance makes sure to assert his ideologies – addressing various rumors and conspiracy theories that exist about the American government and separating the military corps from anything that is deceitful, underlining that patriotic men and women sacrifice themselves for the cause, no matter how it started. In making the leap and using his own life and family as the representation for what is wrong with the society he is from and how it possible to overcome the obstacles, J.D. assumes a lot. Whether he is right or wrong is not the question, but he does seem to go back and forth, acknowledging the need for social welfare programs in one breath and chastising those who benefit from it in another. He is careful to credit the government programs that he says helped his upward mobility but he also states that until the hill people change their attitudes, there is no government program that can help them. Sounds like a bid for political candidacy to me. If so, then it explains why this self-acclaimed Conservative is so sweet on Obama since the former president spring vaulted from his own successful memoir into a run for the White House.
There were moments where I applauded the author’s candor and others where I felt like he hadn’t yet lived out the part that would make this book complete. So when I was finished, I rated this book 3 out of 5 stars. I was intrigued but not quite satisfied, although I am still not sure what I think was missing.
If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, please share your comments below so we can discuss further.