If you met J. D. Vance, you’d have a hard time believing he grew up among the working poor. The former Marine and graduate of Yale Law School works as a biotech executive in Silicon Valley—the last place you’d expect to find a self-identified hillbilly.
In Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper), Vance takes an anguished look at white working-class dysfunction: “I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor, and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.”
The troubles of the working poor are well known to policymakers, but Vance offers an insider’s view of the problem. As one who “made it out,” he wants to bridge the gap between what those at the top believe those at the bottom need and what those at the bottom really need. “Powerful people,” he observes, “sometimes do things to help people like me without really understanding people like me.”
Vance’s story begins in Kentucky, home to aunts, uncles, and cousins who stayed behind when his grandparents moved to Ohio to work in the steel mills. Steeped in Appalachian culture, these transplants found it hard to shake certain ancestral vices. Vance’s parents split while he was young, and his mother battled substance abuse while cycling through romantic partners.
This meant Vance had multiple “fathers” and shifting versions of “family.” He was never being sure how to answer simple questions like, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” “The constant moving and fighting,” Vance writes, “the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to ...1