Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

I just finished J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy about a kid growing up in Ohio, a grandchild of the hillbillies who made the trek from the hills of Kentucky after WWII in search of opportunity and the American Dream.  It was good to see the white working-class (lovingly called hillbillies) so well represented.  Mr. Vance is my age, early thirties, grew up poor and disadvantaged in the Rust Belt.  A lot of his experiences are extreme, and I grew up in an intact family with all the opportunity to achieve what I wanted, but his family members and some experiences seemed very familiar to me.  I have some nuts hanging from the family tree (thankfully they were not a large part of my formative years), but mostly what I recognized were the kids I went to school with.

The South has its own version of hillbillies called (lovingly or not depending on who you talk to) rednecks.  Rednecks come from the same Scots-Irish tradition as hillbillies and have the same honor code and are just as quick to fight.  It’s a deep and ingrained culture in the South and it makes no difference how much money you make or what subdivision you live in, a redneck will usually stay a redneck.  And be proud of it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with tradition and sticking by your kin.  What’s wrong is being content with a rotten life because that’s what you’ve always known, and you can’t see a way out.  These are the points Mr. Vance makes in his book.  Government policies, more school funding, more welfare.  These are not the things that help disadvantaged kids in these areas.  It’s people who make the difference.  Mr. Vance had people, family members, teachers, friends, who made him see that there was something more than the misery of his current situation.

People need Jesus.  And not just as a get-into-heaven-free card.  They need the power of the Lord to breakdown those demonic barriers that keep people fighting and fleeing for generations.  It’s Satan’s most successful strategy in the modern Western world: keep families angry and hurt and resentful and vindictive.  Keep widening the criteria for victim-hood.  Keep preaching hate and divisive politics.  Mr. Vance makes the point that the government can’t save these communities with legislation.  The only way a culture will change is when the majority of its adherents finally say enough is enough.  It’s people who are going to make the difference and we as people need to recognize barriers that are keeping us apart and call on the Lord to pull down those strongholds.

Hillbilly Elegy really didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, because I live in the same kind of culture, but I think it can be a wake-up call to those who don’t.  I recommend it for a quick read that’s also thought-provoking.

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