Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper, 2016. 261 pp. $27.99
This year’s presidential election turned America’s attention to the struggles of the rural working class. Often maligned, rarely understood, and usually relegated to the cultural waste bin, this year the rest of us were forced take a deep look into what is going on in their communities. As New York Times columnist David Brooks noted, many people live inside cultural bubbles and think what is going on in their little segment of the land of the free is true of the rest of the nation, so most people ignore the glaring issues that these communities are facing.
J.D. Vance is a graduate of Yale Law School, and while this may sound like he comes from “elite” roots, he does not need to travel to rural America for a course on her travails. His grandparents, along with many others, moved to Ohio from Kentucky to work in the auto industry after World War II. While they may have changed locations, they kept their hillbilly culture. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of his life and a culture that many do not understand.
Vance’s story highlights both the beauty and the difficulties facing working class Americans. In the beauty we see the strong sense of family and community bonds. Vance’s grandmother, who plays a central role in his story, hated nothing more than poor people stealing from other poor people, believing it to be the ultimate betrayal. When Vance’s mother struggled with addiction, it was his grandmother who proved to be a source of stability for him. She, as well as his older sister, loved and cared for him when his life was at its most chaotic and volatile.
Hillbilly Elegy also shows the seemingly overwhelming difficulties facing the working class. Their jobs have disappeared, drug use runs rampant, family situations are often chaotic, and hopelessness hangs over everything. In a moving personal narrative, Vance talks about life with his mother who struggled with addiction and cycled through a series of boyfriends and husbands. He shows the toll this constant instability can take on the young children and teenagers who have no say in the rotating cast of characters living in their rotating series of homes. Through the steady love of his sister and grandmother, hard work, and providence, he served in the Marine Corps, graduated from Ohio State University, and emerged with a degree from a prestigious law school. Through his story, we hear the story of an overlooked people, who hopefully through this moving narrative will be overlooked no more.
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
One of the great ironies of the 21st century is that we are connected to more people than ever while building a bubble for ourselves where we don’t encounter people with opposing viewpoints or people who have a different way of life from ours. This can especially be true of pastors who spend most of their time either writing sermons or ministering to those who are already inside the church. While teaching and shepherding are an essential part of the pastor’s job, knowing the people in his community and the struggles they face is important as well. Hillbilly Elegy reminds us that there are hurting families all around us who don’t trust the church or her motives. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to enter into their world, hear their stories, and seek to understand how the Gospel can heal their brokenness.
In addition, Hillbilly Elegy reminds us of the importance of empathy. For most college-educated people living in a city or a suburb, J.D. Vance’s family would be a stereotype we laugh about or a people we would avoid because they don’t share our sensibilities. His story reminds us that we have been caricaturing and avoiding flesh and blood people made in the image of God, who have real stories, real frustrations, real hurts, real demons, and real pain.
When we read the Gospels, we see Jesus’ overwhelming compassion for people who are like sheep without a shepherd. He put feet to his compassion when he himself took our suffering, pain, and sin upon himself. The example he set for us in his life and death compels us to enter into the pain, suffering, and hopelessness we see around us. As those who represent him, we should not be content with staying inside a bubble that insulates us from the real pain in the world.
Essential — Recommended — Helpful — Pass It By
Through his moving personal narrative, J.D. Vance helps us to see the struggles and travails of an overlooked people.
Ed. note: Hillbilly Elegy contains a fair amount of foul language.