An elegy by definition is “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.”

J.D. Vance’s new memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, currently a bestseller and a hot item with a long waiting list at any public library is certainly a serious reflection on his growing up a “hillbilly,” and it does express grief for his grandparents, both for whom I cried real tears while reading this book.

Early on he says the book is about how this culture (Kentucky Appalachia and Ohio Rust Belt) is known for “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

Vance can talk about these problems in a way others can’t get away with because he lived through it himself and somehow came out a Yale-educated lawyer.

What I appreciated most is that he doesn’t expect that just because he came out OK it is always possible. He knows it’s not.

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The culture Vance describes is heavy in domestic violence and drug abuse. He says the schools were not the issue but rather the unstable home life was the “real barrier to opportunity.”

“Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.”

Mamaw & Papaw

So what saved Vance? He says mostly it was his grandparents. He had a Papaw who taught him multiplication and a grandma (Mamaw) – though crazy herself – who protected him from his unstable mother. They did so much for him and were crazy but lovable characters. When I said I cried for them I mean it, I cried like I knew these people.

Vance’s story is not only interesting and insightful but truly entertaining read as well. I read the book in about two days. I learned a lot and had some of my own preconceived notions challenged.

So what do we do?

He does offer suggestions towards the end including expanded definitions of family in state laws and section 8 housing that doesn’t segregate the poor into their own enclaves .

He admits the culture is unfortunately unlikely to help itself due to a strong sense of privacy or mind your own business mentality. The people who can do the most to help the situation unfortunately aren’t the hundreds requesting this book at the local library. But regardless I believe that the more education and understanding we all have of different cultures and issues in our country, the better chance we have to make it better.

I thoroughly enjoyed and learned from this book. I strongly recommend it, and this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing/reading/hearing of J.D. Vance.

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