‘Hillbilly Elegy’: Memoir offers insight into America’s cultural divisions

“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance; HarperCollins Books ($27.99)
“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance; HarperCollins Books ($27.99)

Following one of the most divisive and contentious elections in history, it’s easy to say that we are a nation in cultural crisis. But what does that actually mean? In the Rust Belt, as well as in rural Appalachia, it means factories closing and good jobs shipped overseas in less than a generation. It means an uptick in drug abuse and violence in the home, an erosion of the education system and trust in our government, and the disintegration of children’s dreams for a better future than that of their parents.

In his bestseller, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” author J.D. Vance offers some valuable insight into the cultural divisions in America and their repercussions. Relaying personal stories that are both heartening and heartbreaking, he explains what it is like to be raised in a family of proud, poor and loving-yet-broken hillbillies.

We learn how Vance’s grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, fled rural Kentucky as teenage newlyweds to the prosperous steel town of Middletown, Ohio, in order to give their children a chance at a better future. Despite their flaws, Mamaw and Papaw are loving, stable figures in young Vance’s world — people who help with homework and provide a sheltering home when his own turns violent.

Yet as Vance writes, “for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.” His memoir reminds us that while our country’s socio-economic structure is often examined in terms of race — particularly when it comes to “white privilege” — there are millions of working-class white Americans for whom crippling poverty and a lack of access to basic resources, like a quality education, is a time-worn family tradition. These families have lived in crisis for so long that it has become a state of being.

Thanks to the (often dysfunctional) encouragement of his family, Vance became one of the lucky few who managed, through hard work and education, to break his family’s tradition of poverty. Vance is a veteran of the Marine Corps and a graduate of Ohio State University and Yale Law School. He has contributed to the National Review and The New York Times and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm.

Yet in his recollections of growing up in a home marred by drug abuse, violence and poverty, Vance offers a glimpse of the dysfunction and trauma suffered by many children who grow up poor, as well as personal reflections on why it is so hard to break that cycle.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Vance, are online and available for podcast at To listen to previous interviews anytime, download our free app from Google Play or the iTunes App Store.