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My Honest Thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy

Welcome to my weekly Book-ish post where I share what I’ve been reading and watching recently. If you missed it, you can see my Reading Goals for 2018 and 44 Books I Plan to Read This Year

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Curious about reading Hillbilly Elegy? These is a great, honest review!!

I’ve seen Hillbilly Elegy mentioned over and over again by various different people online and in podcasts. I didn’t plan to read it because the premise didn’t really interest me that much.

But then I saw that it happened to be available on the Libby app, so I went ahead and put a hold on it just because so many people had recommended it.

I started listening to it and almost didn’t continue because there was so much language in it (seriously! Do not listen to this with kids around — there are a LOT of curse words!)

Here’s the part of the premise of the book from the back cover:

From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class through the author’s own story of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town.

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of poor, white Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.

I thought the book was surprising, pretty fair and balanced (I expected the author to lean strongly to one side of the political aisle or the other — and that the book would be more politically charged as a result), and a very insightful look into how our upbringing can affect our life trajectory in such a powerful way.

While I wish there weren’t so much crass language and cussing in the book (though I think it’s likely just the author being truthful and honest to how his family actually talked), I think the book is worth reading — if you can stomach all of the f-bombs in it.

I would be curious to hear from other people who were raised in this same region and social class — to know their perspective on the things he shares. It’s the type of book I’d love to read with a Book Club because I found it caused me to have so many thought and questions and things I wanted to discuss with others who had read it.

Have you read it? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought — whether you liked it or totally disliked it.

When I Find Time to Read

People are always asking me how I find time to read. Honestly, it’s because I love to read, because I’ve chosen to prioritize it, because I don’t have a lot of other hobbies, and because I can’t not read. Also, when you love something, you usually can find ways to get creative to find time to fit it in — even if it’s in the little nooks and crannies of life.

I wrote a post on 3 ways to find more time to read — even when life is busy. And here are 7 more ways to find time to read.

What did you read and watch this past week? Any books or movies or shows you really think I need to read or watch?

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  • Guest says:

    My thoughts are very similar to yours. I read it last year and the language is rough but I don’t think it’s gratuitous if that makes sense. That’s honestly how he was raised and I think it was being true to the experience. I grew up in rural Arkansas and I absolutely felt an odd connection to many parts of the book because of that. Thankfully my immediate family wasn’t dysfunctional in that way but extended family, neighbors, etc. were.

    Another harrowing (and far more disturbing in my opinion) memoir is Educated.

  • Pamela says:

    I read it and liked it – especially his point that we need a strong social safety net along with personal responsibility/grit. I do think that it also showed the NEED we have as a country for financial literacy – if I recall correctly, it was his CO in the Navy who helped him figure out interest rates on loans and budgeting and stuff. I think that sort of thing should be taught as “life skills” to kids in high school to help people get started with a basic knowledge of how money works.

    (also, the f-bombs didn’t bother me but I read the book so my eyes just bounce off those words – I think it would be harder to listen to!)

  • Kelly says:

    I loved it! Super enlightening. I read it during the last presidential election and it really helped me understand a part of the population very different than my own, and helped me have more empathy for different world views.

    I read it in print and don’t remember the profanity (even though I don’t swear at all!)

  • Taylor says:

    Crystal, I was deeply impacted by this book. It helped me put words to things I’ve seen and experienced, whereas before was just a feeling of odd-ness and left-out-ness (excuse my made up words!). My dad grew up just like the author, and although my nuclear family is very different from what’s portrayed in the book, because of my dad’s family history, I’ve seen evidences of how he grew up. I’ve always thought I don’t quite fit in with city people, but I don’t with country people either. that’s primarily because my dad’s side isn’t farmer-country, they’re outlaw-country. Which is pretty embarrassing as a junior high kid in a new school trying to learn the right words to use to not sound too – well, redneck I guess (or hillbilly per the author’s description). I hated the foul language in the book, but truth be told, to hillbillies it’s just regular, everyday language. I’m now more able to understand my extended family, and recognize ways I want to distance my son even further from the lifestyle. Still, it is my heritage, and in many ways, hillbillies are extremely of the mindset that “blood runs thicker than water” – I know at any point I could pick up the phone and call my uncles (and probably aunts too), and they’d beat the living daylights out of someone for looking at me wrong. Anyway, I’m so glad you reviewed this book. my then 7-year-old had no interest in reading chapter books, so for me it worked out much better to read the physical book, than to try to listen and hope he couldn’t hear (he’s homeschooled and an only child, so we are together all the time). My mom did not grow up “hillbilly”, but her family was also very poor – and legalistically religious – so that’s partly why I still feel the hillbilly lifestyle so engrained in me. Both my parents (in their 50s now, so not old at all) grew up using an outhouse at times. in general being dirt poor aligns you with similar people. Sorry for the long comment! I just haven’t had a chance to share these thoughts with anyone 🙂

  • I read it and had so many mixed thoughts about it. The language would peel the paint off the walls. And yet, and yet, and yet…to discover the influence of a grandmother over her grandson! A sister over her brother (and I think she is a half-sister, too). If we think we don’t make a difference…think again.
    Love your work! ~Suzanne

  • Guest says:

    I’m sorry, but I thought this book was awful. In my opinion, the author was incredibly arrogant and painted poor Southerners with an extremely broad brush. As a Southerner who grew up MUCH poorer than he, I found the overabundance of stereotypes insulting. While I personally know many people who would fit these stereotypes, such as the welfare abuser, the lazy worker, or the addict, so many more poor Southerners are simply good, honest, hardworking people who face lots of challenges with getting ahead in life because they lack the resources and structure of someone born into better circumstances. I feel there was a lot of blaming poor people for being poor.

    The author is certainly entitled to his opinion, and read solely as a memoir and not as a political “explanation” of poor Southern whites, it is a decent book. However, it is important to remember that this is only one perspective, and it is of someone whose life experience definitely does not fit the norm. That said, his journey was very admirable, but I feel that because he was able to “make it out”, it is very hard for him to understand why it is so very difficult for others to do the same.

    Also, it absolutely broke my heart to hear of the way he described his mother going from store to store to buy him a certain Christmas present in such a negative way. Even though there was much baggage in that relationship, and I see the point he was trying to make, it just hurt my heart that he seemed not to get that this was an incredible act of love by a very troubled woman.

    In my experience, I have not seen that rich people spend less on Christmas gifts than poor people, and have actually found it to be exactly the opposite. I also don’t believe that it is anything more than a personal financial decision to be made on a family-to-family basis, regardless of social status.

    I could go on and on, but in my opinion the back-patting and looking down on others was very prevalent throughout. Oh, and the language was also horrid.

    • Guest says:

      He was telling the story of his personal family not all southerners. As a southerner (and growing up a poor one at that), I didn’t feel he was saying all poor southerners or all southerners are the same as his own family and he writes honestly of their dysfunction. As a poor southerner who went on to be a first generation college graduate, I can appreciate how hard a path that is. I can also appreciate that others who stay put often think those who make different life choices are arrogant and think they’re better than others. Sadly it’s one of the cultural reasons many people stay in poverty.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re also thinking of the South and not Appalachia specifically. I cannot stress enough the difference. Having grown up in Appalachia (and beyond thankful I got out), I could relate to so much. You don’t know it until you’ve lived it.

    • Thanks for sharing your honest perspective — I really wanted to open up this space to hear from others who came from similar backgrounds. So I really appreciate you sharing!

  • Tiffany says:

    I just couldn’t get past the language! I wanted so badly to continue but couldn’t stomach it.

  • Rachel says:

    I absolutely loved it. I grew up (and still reside) in Appalachia. While my childhood was much different from what is portrayed in the book, many of my family members (even first cousins) grew up in very similar situations. In some ways I feel like I ‘got lucky’ with my parents. I don’t know how they knew to take a different path (and it’s not something they like to discuss), but they just knew they wanted more for all of us. We are the first children with education beyond high school on one side of the family – we ended up with 7 college degrees between the 4 of us! But I think those (great) choices created a bit of a lonely life for my parents, we often get called ‘snooty’ or are accused of thinking we are better than the rest of the family, which could NOT be further from the truth! This book made me think deeply and answered a lot of questions I’ve wondered about for a long time. It’s my favorite read of 2018!

    • Guest says:

      So relate to your comment, Rachel! What’s even more interesting is seeing those choices reflected in their children and grandchildren. A reminder of how our choices continue on for generations.

  • Letty says:

    I read this book this summer and immediately after read The Glass Castle. I recommend both very highly!! Yes the language in them can be distracting but the overall messages are worth having to bounce over crude language. I feel that these books open our eyes to those living in poverty and create empathy. Reading these stories helped me appreciate the stable upbringing I had even more. I especially liked how J.D. mentioned the relationship between an unstable home life and school performance. I would encourage Christian teenagers to read both of these books, if for any other reason but to show them what struggles their peers may be experiencing. These books also made me wish school lunches would be free and available to all students without having parents or guardians going through an application process first.

    • Oh! I need to read The Glass Castle — thanks for the recommendation!

      • Jennifer B. says:

        I read Glass Castle before reading Hillbilly Elegy and I wish I’d read them the other way around. I felt myself getting so angry at the parents in the Glass Castle that I almost couldn’t finish the book. The author of Hillbilly Elegy did a much better job at explaining why people acted the way they did and how that often played out for the kids in the home. Both books were eye opening but between the two I much preferred Hillbilly.

  • Robyn says:

    I read the book so I was able to semi skim over the language. I think I would have had a hard time listening to it. What I thought was fascinating, regarding the language, was that it toned down significantly as the author moved from his hillbilly upbringing to college education and his professional life. I was glad I stuck with it through a rough beginning.

  • I loved it and have always been fascinated by learning about different upbringings and areas of the country. I don’t remember much about the language – either it’s been so long since I read it or maybe the language was in context and didn’t bother me as much for that reason. I agree that it would be a great book to read and discuss with others!!

  • Halsy says:

    I grew up in a town very near where the author grew up and am very close in age. Many of the people were only one generation removed from similar areas of Kentucky. I honestly felt like he was telling my family’s story and many of those in the town I grew up. I was reminded of my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and cousins and even my mother in some ways. My grandparents were amazing to me but were completely different people when raising my mother. I’m not a fan of the language but I do believe it is absolutely necessary to give the reader a glimpse into the people he is describing. My grandfather cursed so much he wouldn’t even realize it when someone pointed it out. I felt after reading this book I had a different perspective and understanding of my own childhood experiences and my extended family. Throughout the book I was reminded of that urgency I had to get out of my little town where everything seemed to be decaying…to have a chance, to overcome all those road blocks and everyone who told me an Ivy League school would never be a possibility. However, no matter all the hurt there is fierce family loyalty. It’s just an unspoken understanding. I think he does an excellent job describing a culture that is so hard to describe and understand without actually experiencing it.

  • Bren says:

    I can remember reading this and wanting to be a fan. And being sadly disappointed in a Nickel and Dimed sort of way. I think a better book that would explain what happens to a community when industry collapses is Glass House.

  • Tia says:

    As a Blanton,I’d like to weigh in:
    This book was written by my cousin,
    about our family, so I can say it is absolutely an accurate memoir (foul mouthed- Aunt Bonnie and all…♡)

    She may have had the mouth of a fish- wife but her heart was solid 14 karat.

    I can’t wait for the screen version to see my Aunt Bonnie (AKA Mammaw) &
    my father, David Blanton and all the others (who were always larger than life!) be portrayed on the big screen.

    It’s surreal– and thrilling !!
    And I trust* Ron Howard will do a great job.

    *If you can’t trust Opie–who can ya trust???:-)

    So stinkin’ proud of J.D.–and the rest of my family.

    # BlantonProud
    Tia Rene Blanton

    • Letty says:

      It’s going to be a movie?! How cool! I will be looking forward to seeing it! Thank you so much for commenting and sharing about your family!

    • Thank you for sharing — and I didn’t know it was going to be a movie!!

    • Melissa Haddix Moody says:

      I’m looking forward to seeing this film! ’m curious as to who will play David! He spent many, MANY days at my house (visiting me and my ex, Danny Back). There’s NO ONE like him!

  • Lauren says:

    I read the book about a year ago and thought it was very interesting. I also live in Appalachia, and while my nuclear family is nothing like the author’s, my extended family is not far removed and has many of the same patterns (very young/dysfunctional marriages to escape dysfunctional family life, lack of job opportunities and education, etc).

    I found it to be very accurate and truthful. I passed it to my father who loves to read. He read it and said he didn’t think it was interesting at all because he has lived it and it’s all around (which is interesting in and of itself).

  • I highly recommend this book to people who live in my area (Ohio), along with Dreamland by Sam Quinones. I heard J.D. Vance speak locally and I was impressed by how he didn’t get political, but just wants to help with the opiod crisis. You really should read Dreamland soon – it gives the background of how this became such a problem in our country.

  • Ashley says:

    That’s so funny! I’m right in the middle of listening to this book right now! The language doesn’t bother me, I’ve always subscribed to the theory that you can say a lot of horrid things without using profanity and some really beautiful things using it. I’m really enjoying the book (his grandma is a hoot!), I’m from Portland, Or so this is definitely a fascinating view into a very different lifestyle and area than what I grew up with.

  • Another Hillbilly says:

    This book REALLY moved me, and being a strong Christian lady (and a homeschool mom at that) it seemed so out of what I would consider a “worthy piece of literature”.
    Allow me to explain, I went to visit my parents last fall. While there, I saw this book left on the night stand next to my bed. Bored, I picked it up and began to read. I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN! I asked if I could take it with me for the 5hr road trip back home, to which my parents replied, “doesn’t matter to me, just another of those yuppie books SIL must have left when she was here”.
    What they didn’t know was this was very much the story of my life. I grew up in the town next to where the author J.D. speaks of. My father worked for the steel factory mentioned. I saw this lived out by many in our circles. The only reason were were not in as deeply as the family of the book was because of my Grandparents who lived nearby and made sure we spent our Sundays in church and spoke truth into our hearts and lives that there is a better way and that you are not your circumstances.
    Like J.D. I joined the military and moved away, but with that too came pain. And when I went home, I too saw my home with a different set of eyes.
    So, no, I did not like the language, but it made the story “real” and helped me to feel that I was right back in that little town living it word by word as I read the letters on the page. It helped me to renew a compassion for my family, those I grew up with and also a strong desire to go home to “be the difference”.

  • Nikki says:

    I listened to about half of Hillbilly Elegy on a book on CD. The language and sexual references became progressively worse, so I stopped. I was disappointed because I wanted to find out what happened.

    I disagreed with the premise that J.D.’s family problems stemmed from his grandparents’ hillbilly background. Their problems were caused by substance abuse. J.D.’s grandfather was an alcoholic which caused dysfunction in his marriage and in his children’s growing up years. J.D.’s mother successfully finished high school and college and had a career as a nurse until she started using drugs. Anyone who abuses drugs will have the problems that J.D.’s family had regardless of where they are from.

  • Brooke says:

    I read it, actually, listened to the audiobook version too, and found it fascinating. I agree, there is a lot of coarse language and subject matter but as you said, I think it was the author’s honest recollections. I later watched a short interview some news magazine did with him and his wife. Both seemed like people I’d like to have as friends.

    • Brooke says:

      I grew up in a pastor’s home and have known many people like the author’s family…people my dad/our church tried to reach with the Gospel. I agree with the commenter who said where he grew up had less to do with his difficult circumstances than substance abuse did. Sin and brokenness is at the heart of any dysfunction we have in our lives.

  • Christine says:

    Crystal, I’d like you to consider making a list of audio books you have “read” for some of us to have recommendations. I’ve been out of the loop in reading more popular books over the past 20 years. I did download Libby and have a few on my list, but three of them are Hillbilly Elegy, Educated and Glass Castle, which have similar themes.

  • Donna Humphries says:

    I am from Knoxville Tennesse and always deep in the heart of Southern Appalachia. I have not read the book but have been reading the comments about it. I am quite shocked by the references to people in my area using foul language commonly. I have not experienced this at all. In fact, just the opposite. Appalachia is filled with a lot of religious people who would wash a kids mouth out with soap! Over time, have heard a lot of references to stereotypes that just aren’t true. To call my Appalachian people Hillbilly is a bit offensive too. We are sensitive to the label of being stupid. I probably need to read this book. My hope is that it doesn’t make me mad!

  • Ann Marie Hill says:

    This book spoke to me and helped me understand my father (and his side of my family) better. I grew up in the North West US which is a very different culture than Appilachian West Virginia where he grew up. It explains why being slapped upside the head was “no big deal”, why swearing was no big thing for him, why he felt like an outsider at mom’s side family gatherings, and no matter how much he longed for it he would never have moved us back there. Through his writing I saw the lives of my cousins and extended family play out. I recognized my own struggle with anger/fight mentality in his own struggle. I understand now and am so grateful that this is a part of my heritage too.

    • Jordan says:

      Thank you so much for sharing so intimately about how this book affected you! It’s amazing what the written word can do to let us see things through someone else’s point of view. -Jordan, MSM Team

  • Karen Johnson says:

    I have not read the book, but did watch the movie on Netflix and thought it was very well done.

  • Gina Klahn says:

    Hi Crystal,

    I know I’m late to the game here, but did you read Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy? Looks like it might provide some of the feedback from the area that you were looking for.

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