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Hillbilly Elegy


Hillbilly Elegy

by J. D. Vance

J.D. Vance grew up as a self-proclaimed hillbilly in a steel town in Ohio in the 1980’s and eventually graduated from Yale University in the faculty of Law.  This is the story of his journey along a very bumpy trail beginning in the Appalachians and finally ending up in Cincinnati practicing law.  Among the colourful characters who helped him on his way were a gun toting Grandma (my favourite), a drug addicted mother, multiple father figures, an absentee biological father, and a devoted older sister.

His story draws the curtain wide, giving us an unfettered view of life in a culture where hope is as scarce as money.  Vance is articulate, funny and insightful as he recounts the roller coaster ride of his youth.  He is also an advocate for change in this community, and examines the sociological components that contribute to the never-ending cycle of poverty in this region.  Citing statistics and humorous anecdotes in equal measure, he mixes resentment with understanding as he attempts to lead a “normal” life, all the while carrying a backpack full of demons inherited from his hillbilly clan.

Prior to reading this book, I read Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, a study of shame and resilience.  It struck me that these two topics are related.  The hillbilly culture is mired in shame in its many forms: shame of poverty, shame of ignorance, shame of appearing feminine (for men), shame of early pregnancy, and shame of powerlessness.  This creates a closed group of people who find it difficult to ask for help, which then leads to a reduction of resources for those who want to escape this life. 

The connection between these two books is fascinating and I believe that Brown is correct in saying that shame prevents us from sharing our stories, which in turn impedes the healing process.  It is like an anchor around the neck, dragging you down, away from help and toward further isolation.

Vance is a skilled writer who chose to share a very personal story.  His refusal to be ashamed of his circumstances gives him the power to rise above it and to lift others out as well. 

Hillbilly Elegyby sonja_library