Hillbilly Elegy Discussion Journal

We met this week to discuss Hillbilly Elegy: a memoir of a family and culture in crisis by J.D. Vance.  The book made the top of the New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers List in August of 2016.[1]  According to the Washington Post, by February, 2017, Hillbilly Elegy had sold “half a million copies in hardcover and 280,000 digital and audio editions.”[2]  A film version, directed by Ron Howard and starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams, is due to be released in November this year. HillbillyElegyCover

Our first responders liked the book and most seemed to find it easy to read, although one of us almost stopped reading because it seemed too sad. The first and most powerful part of our discussion was about poverty.  Were the problems Vance described because of the hillbilly culture or because of a culture of poverty?  One of us noted that the author’s mother is not the only nurse to have an addiction problem. Another member has worked most of her life in welfare/social-type work and she felt that the author gave one of the best explanations of the behavior she has read. We discussed the importance of mentors and a support system. One of us shared her own sense of loss in not having a support system. Several of our members are grandparents who participate heavily in their grandchildren’s lives.

Nevada is filled with settlers from around the country, the world even, yet I am always amazed by how many connections we find.  One member grew up in South-Western Ohio, in a town very similar to Middletown, with a lot of transplants from Kentucky. He said that the author did not emphasize enough how the Kentucky/Southern accent made people stand out. He also felt that the author over-emphasized the problems and dysfunction of the area.

We still weren’t sure if the author explained well enough why people would change from democrats to republicans.  One member mentioned that the change had taken place with Reagan. We discussed that the author’s relatives could not identify with the polish and education, even elitism, of the democratic candidates, identifying more with Trump’s rough edges. The discussion got a little tough and I intervened to remind us that we needed to try to stay away from politics and get back to the book.

One of us wanted to talk about question six[3], which asked what we thought about Vance’s difficulty with neighbors who were on welfare and yet had a cell phone. She was particularly disturbed at how much help from the government people get – free phones and food stamps —while not working. Others brought up that food stamps are intended to help children, although this varies by state. I mentioned the free food distributed at the library on Thursdays, available to anyone. The discussion was heated and emotional. I moved us on because we can all share stories that frustrate us, much like the author does, but the need is great and the intent is to help.

Another member directed us to question seven, that “critics of Hillbilly Elegy accuse Vance of blaming the victim rather than providing a sound analysis of the structural issues left unaddressed by government.” She believed that the author was trying to show that government policy cannot solve the problem.  People have to want to change.

It was a difficult discussion.  One of my coworkers had read the book, liking it at first and then deciding that the author was just patting himself on the back. A couple of people around the table seemed to agree.  When I mentioned that the author had moved back to Ohio and started a non-profit[4]to help with the issues he identified in Hillbilly Elegy, one member said she like him better knowing that.

One of us had watched several videos, including a Ted Talk by J.D. Vance. I played a short clip in which Vance had a discussion with country singer Kacey Musgraves[5]. In this video, he shared family pictures and a story about how, after his grandmother died, they found 19 loaded guns all over her house, strategically placed so that she could always reach one easily. We laughed and commented that Vance doesn’t have an accent.

When I left the library after the meeting, the night was dark, drizzly and smoky – an unusual combination that made me think of the fires in Australia over our winter and last summer’s devastating fires in California.  Yesterday, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 “the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.”[6] I write this blog as a snapshot of our discussions, to remind us what we read and what we thought, including the atmosphere. We don’t always agree, there may never be answers to our most pressing questions, but we have made connections.  Check out the other works discussed—most of them were previous book club selections and are experiences we can all share.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) by Sherman Alexie
  • Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2008) by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
  • The Namesake (2004) by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Perfectionists (2018) by Simon Winchester
  • The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (2017) by Lisa See
  • There There (2018) by Tommy Orange (July 2020 selection)
  • Winter’s Bone (2006) by Daniel Woodrell