Released in 2016, J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy was a near-instant success, receiving widespread acclaim for its sobering depiction of white, working-class Americans experiencing a collective identity crisis. It remains a controversial book, with some critics singing its praises as a sympathetic guide to how Donald Trump was elected president, and others skewering it as a judgmental generalization of the poor working class ("Review: 'Hillbilly Elegy'"; "J.D. Vance, the False Prophet").
Vance's story is a sobering account of his life as a poor kid in a working-class Ohio family that had roots in the hollers of Appalachia. At the center of this narrative are Vance's relationship with his Mamaw, who raised him to believe in the American Dream despite his ordinary beginnings, and his relationship with his mother, who discouraged Vance from believing that success was possible.
However, the Vance family's story actually begins quite hopefully. Vance's grandparents were poor in everything but love, and after doggedly migrating to Ohio to avoid poverty, they managed to raise their family according to a middle-class lifestyle—at least for a time. Their family never managed to leave poverty entirely behind, largely due to the fighting so ingrained in their family history. Above all, Vance's story illustrates why it is so difficult to be socially mobile in poor Middle America.
Ultimately, Vance reaches the ivy-covered halls of Yale Law School, fulfilling the elusive American Dream his grandparents dreamed of but failing to escape the more "hillbilly" aspects of his life, such his mother's addiction issues. By the end of the book, Vance admits he doesn't have all the solutions necessary to save Middle America from poverty and disenfranchisement, but he promotes the kind of community and family support that saved him from remaining in a cycle of poverty.
Unlike other popular memoirs of our time, Vance considers the book, as he writes in the very first page, a "family memoir," rather than a personal memoir or autobiography: the subject of the book is not merely Vance, but rather his whole family. As a whole, the book alternates between an autobiographical account of a brutal childhood spent in poverty and a wealth of social commentary drawn from firsthand experiences and observations. Alternating between the past and present tenses, Vance writes with both reflection and in-the-moment compassion, admitting to his own mistakes and sympathizing with those of his fellow hillbilly.
The book wasted no time in climbing its way onto the New York Times' Best Seller List, eventually landing at number one. The Economist declared that its readers "would not read a more important about America this year," and The New York Times called it "a tough love analysis of the poor who backed Trump" ("Promises, Promises"; "Review: In 'Hillbilly Elegy'").
Other critics chastised the book for blaming poor people for their problems, and for using his own emotional success story to preach to the disenfranchised that simple hard work and good choices will set them free ("J.D. Vance, the False Prophet").
The book will be adapted from the page into a film by Ron Howard ("Ron Howard Directing 'Hillbilly Elegy'").