May 2023 Open Book Group – Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance

Thank you to Jan for moderating Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance.

Hillbilly Elegy is J.D.Vance’s memoir of his upbringing in Middletown, Ohio. The story begins in post-war America when his grandparents move from Jackson in the Appalachian region of Kentucky to Middletown. Like many other hillbillies at the time, they sought to escape poverty. They found employment in the burgeoning steelworks. His grandparents achieved a middle-class lifestyle with property and a pension. However, when the steelworks closed future generations were left unemployed. The dissolution of these blue colour workers is forwarded as an explanation for Trump’s electoral appeal.

 Vance grew up in a chaotic environment. Despite their move, his grandparents took their demons with them. They suffered from alcoholism and domestic violence. His mother was also unstable. She had a history of drug addiction and failed relationships. He describes the hillbilly culture of clan violence. The clan would retaliate violently if one of their own was attacked. Vance moved in with his grandma, Mamaw, to obtain some stability. She was a formidable woman. She guided him to complete his high school education studies. He entered the Marines for four years and later graduated from Ohio State University and Yale Law School. Today he is a Republican Senator from Ohio. He is a loyal Trump supporter. In the recent diabolical town hall meeting aired on CNN, he introduced Trump to the audience.

 Vance argues that he escaped poverty due to strong family and community support. He does not believe in the welfare system relying on anecdotal evidence from his personal experience. As a grocery store checkout cashier, he watched welfare recipients talk on their mobile phones while he could not afford one. Vance questions why his taxes should pay to support people who do not seek to work.

16 OBGers gathered to discuss Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy. It was an easy read. Some members found it repetitive and skimmed through sections. Many described it as a long essay. It was a standard poor boy done good story. Nevertheless, we expressed our admiration for his achievements from such a difficult background. Several members were unaware of J.D. Vance’s political career until after they had finished the book. They wondered if knowing his Trump Association would have coloured their reading.

 Hillbilly Elegy was written in 2016. It was promoted widely during Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign as an explanation of white blue-collar workers’ disinfection with the government. Several members found Vance’s political analysis weak and one-eyed. He argues any welfare support, such as food stamps, is a waste of money as they encourage people not to work. He does not address structural issues of industries going overseas or a minimum wage well below the poverty line. Nor does Vance consider Black and Brown minorities who have suffered similar alienation for decades. One member noted how conservative American politics is. We reflected on the irony, that the Democratic party, which provided welfare support to towns like Middletown, suffered an electoral backlash from the community. They issued the Republican Party into power who then did nothing to help their new base.

 One member questioned why Vance seemed ambivalent about his mother’s problems. We decided it is a self-protection mechanism. With her numerous partners as well as her addiction to prescription medication he craved the stability he found at Mamaw’s house. We noted that his mother was a victim of the OxyContin scandal that decimated many lives in America. OxyContin is a synthetic opioid. It was widely prescribed and extensively advertised as a safe painkiller in the late 1990s. Doctors were unaware of its addictive qualities. Once patients could no longer obtain it legally, they gravitated, like Vance’s mother to illegal substitutes, such as heroin.

 Vance repeatedly states that his grandparents became middle-class when they moved to Middletown and found employment. A member commented that they were blue-collar working class with a stable income. America is a meritocracy, and so by definition, many aim for social mobility, but very few achieve it. Divisions between. rich and poor are ever-expanding. There are decreasing numbers of middle-class families to fill the gap.

 The isolation of Jackson did remind some members of the Australian country town they grew up in. Many parts of rural Australia are dying as the young move to the coastal cities. One member opined that the difference between America and Australia was most people in Australia live in large, diverse cities. In comparison to Australia, a greater proportion of the American population lives in rural areas. We thought the isolation encouraged the clannish behaviour of the hillbillies. Survivalist communities as described in Educated by Tara Westover (OBG March 2023) were also referenced.

 A couple of members have seen Hillbilly Elegy the film. They do not recommend other members waste two hours of their life on a sentimental take of the book. One star.

 While Hillbilly Elegy did promote an interesting book group discussion would we recommend it to our family and friends? It was a unanimous No from the OBGers.


Leave a Comment