Thursday, March 30, 2017

Nonfiction Annotation
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
J.D. Vance shares simultaneously both a memoir of his life and a sociological and cultural study of the white working class, specifically the hillbillies, or those in, or from, the Appalachian region. He begins with his grandparents and moves through the years, giving a detailed account of the culture that he was born and raised in. Although not all of the characteristics of his family can be attributed to hillbillies in general, Vance does do a good job of sharing his observations of the culture as a whole. A culture that he says has been slowly disintegrating, so much so that poverty is the norm. It is also a culture, that is so ingrained that even when upward mobility is achieved, the struggles of the culture follow. His grandparents moved from Kentucky to Ohio but the culture followed and so did the struggle. For example, at one point in the story he says his mom and her husband make a combined six figures but the struggle and conflict are still there.
One of Vance's conclusions is that hillbillies have acquired a learned helplessness; a sense of despair.
This and the overall account is a valuable insider perspective, one that everyone should read to understand how this huge portion of our society feels, and to understand that while the culture has many negatives, it also has many positives.
This is an often funny, often sad, but always moving look at a family and the larger culture they are a part of.

Non-fiction Characteristics
Narrative: Non-fiction books have different levels of the narrative aspect. Hillbilly Elegy is highly narrative and reads almost like a novel at times. So patrons who like highly narrative non-fiction may like a suggestion of Hillbilly Elegy.
Type: This is mostly a memoir but also a commentary on a culture and social class. It is not a task-based non-fiction book.
Subject: Working Class Whites from the Appalachian Region plus J.D. Vance's family story.
Appeal: Candid, Insightful, Engaging, Thought-Provoking

All Over But the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg
Belonging: A Culture of Place by Bel Hooks
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in Boom-Time America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Personal Note: My mom's side was all from Kentucky. I was told my whole life I was a hillbilly and I did relate to a lot of Vance's book. There aren't many people in my family to have gone to college and I have seen (and personally experienced) the learned helplessness. I related to this line, "Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life." I identified with the religious beliefs of Mamaw, the fierce loyalty to family while everyone else is an outsider and several other big aspects. However, while his book does make poignant and important points on this culture, I felt some of it was more personal biography and perhaps not fair to associate the "hillbilly"culture at large with some of the characteristics of his family. While there is a lot of dysfunction in the culture overall, not every family is as out of control as his seemed to be. I just couldn't help wondering what someone who does not identify with this culture at all would think? I hope they saw the positives over the violence, verbal abuse and addiction because not all "hillbilly" families are that dysfunctional - even if they are poor. For example, my grandpa, who I never knew was admittedly a drunk but my Grandma while as intensely loving as Vance's, didn't act anything like her otherwise. I never heard language like that come out of her mouth. She was like a saint - very clearly a hillbilly, but sweet as could be. So, while I really liked the book,  I didn't think it quite right that he so intertwine his personal story in with hillbilly culture in general because it may give a false and very negative impression to people who do not associate with the culture. It's OK for someone like me because I relate to the culture and can tell the difference, but what about someone who has no relation to this culture? While he does show the intense love... the instability is, at some points, just incredibly dysfunctional and not all "hillbilly" families are like that. It's a complicated subject. As Vance says, "It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith."


  1. I really enjoyed this book. I paired it with White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg and Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russle. I have seen all three on reading lists for understanding the 2016 election, and we can't keep them on the shelves.

  2. I have seen this book many times and I have been tempted to pick it up. Your summary reminded me of the T.V. show hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus called Hillbilly: The Real Story about the history and culture of the people of the Appalachia region. I was also reminded of a book I read several years ago American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard which includes the culture and history of the people in the Greater Appalachia region and how they came by their regional identities.

  3. Fantastic annotation! You did a great job with the summary and appeals and your personal thoughts were heartfelt and really added to the annotation. Full points!