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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

     by Vance, J.D.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Author J.D. Vance holds degrees from Ohio State and Yale, but those aren't what make him an expert on the socioeconomic plight of the Rust Belt. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a steel town gone bust, raised in turns by grandparents who moved from Appalachia decades earlier and an absentee mother with a carousel of live-in boyfriends. He uses anecdotes from his childhood to illustrate the culture and economic gap that separates the working class from the middle class and how hard it is to bridge that divide. Years after leaving Middletown, first for the Marines and then for college, Vance still finds some of the nuances of middle class life lost to him. He has no idea, for instance, that someone going on a job interview should wear a suit. The same socioeconomic factors that make it hard to "escape" Middletown, he muses, leave their mark even on those who succeed in breaking the cycle and leaving. 

Vance's memoir about growing up in a community stuck in a cycle of poverty, drug use, lack of education, and joblessness couldn't have come at a better time. The divide between America's middle and working classes has been given significant air time by pundits after the 2016 presidential election, and Vance's poignant and engrossing trip through his childhood takes readers on a socioeconomic rollercoaster through Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Absent from Vance's narrative are the soap box lectures or over-reaching morality tales that one might expect; instead, he lets readers draw their own conclusions about what the future holds for the wide swathe of Americans who are players in the hard scrabble world he describes.

Reviewed by BA, 01/17. Other reviews by BA.