A Review of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

For 2017, I plan on reading books outside of my preferred genre of reading. I mainly read books on subjects I’m working through in regards to Grace Life. So my normal reading is Christian living, church planting, and leadership. I want to branch out this year and to do so, I plan on following this reading challenge.

Since I am reading through this challenge in order, the first book I’m reading is a biography. I chose Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. This book gained notoriety towards the end of President Trump’s campaign and some say it gives an understanding on how people in mostly Democratic towns voted for a Republican candidate.


J.D. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a once thriving steel town inhabited by displaced Kentuckians like his Mamaw and Papaw who moved there after World War II. Mamaw and Papaw arrived to Middletown with no money, no jobs, and a baby on the way. Their desire to leave the lifestyle of Appalachia may have started off rocky, but eventually, they were able to achieve middle-class status. But even though they were now a part of America’s working class, they still held on to their past values. They were loyal to a fault and they loved their country, but their people were – and still are – prone to violence, drugs, and abuse that is intertwined throughout their family.

J.D.’s Papaw was always coming home drunk, his Mamaw once lit his Papaw on fire, and his mom had countless encounters with the law and numerous men in her life (at least five husbands). His family was dysfunctional to say the least.

Mamaw was J.D.’s main influencer. It was as if Mamaw had this desire to end the cycle with J.D. She was tough on him, but taught him life lessons that he still holds on to today. One lesson was, “Always act like you fit in”, which he used when schmoozing up with Law Firms in hopes of landing a job out of Law School.

Though she had her flaws and may have possibly killed a man (hillbilly justice they would say), Mamaw raised J.D. to be a hard worker and a learner. After serving four years in the Marines, J.D. would go on to earn a double major in three years at Ohio State University and become a graduate of the prestigious Harvard Law School.

The thesis of the book is a question I believe J.D. is asking: “How responsible for their own lives, fortunes, and actions are these Hillbilly men and women”? They would blame it on politicians, media (which they have come to hate), the military (for fighting unnecessary wars) and their lack of work.

All in all, J.D. may look the part of modern, American privilege – white, male, straight, and protestant, but he is far from privileged. He is hillbilly and his story gives us a glimpse into the lives of people who are now referred to as the forgotten people of America.


Since I mostly read Christian books and since the readers of this review are mostly Christians, I want to give a few disclaimers.

There is strong language through out the entire book. Mamaw definitely had quite the potty mouth.

There are also a few accounts that are not suitable for children.


For me, the book was slow and spent too much time in J.D.’s early life. I thought the second half of the book was rushed, as if they were trying to get this out during the 2016 election cycle and rushed the process. I would be interested in knowing more on how he handles life as an adult after going through what he did as a child.


It’s fascinating to read J.D.’s view, mainly because he comes from a conservative view point. You also see how he copes with being “hillbilly” in the midst of white collar America and how what you’ve been through or where you’re from doesn’t have to be where you stay.

The big take away is he wants to get to the root of the problem. He wants to stop blaming other people or entities for the atrocities that his people have gone through. He wants them to see that they themselves are in fact the problem within their communities.

Fun notes

When my wife was reading through this book, she would throw out interesting tidbits that just weren’t making sense to me. As I was deciding if I wanted to read this book for my biography, Julie is giving me some great background. I’m fascinated, but I kept asking about the pastoring side of it. She responded, “Why do you keep asking about their faith? It’s not a book about Christianity.”

That’s when I learned the name of the book was Hillbilly Elegy, not “Hillbilly Clergy”.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed reading Hillbilly Elegy, especially given that it is in a genre that I don’t really enjoy (biographies/memoirs). If you want a glimpse into the Rust Belt of America, read this book.


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