Hillbilly Elegy sets out to explore the struggles of the rural white working class in 21st-century America through the personal story of its author, JD Vance. Part autobiography, part sociological text, and part political manifesto, the book tells a story of dysfunctional families; substance abuse; the material, spiritual, and moral decline of Appalachia; and the struggles to achieve true economic and social mobility in the United States. Ultimately, JD overcomes the odds and achieves a life of success and respectability outside of the hillbilly culture from which he came—but at a heavy personal cost, and with many struggles along the way.
JD was born in 1987 in Middletown, Ohio, to a family of transplanted Kentucky hillbillies. His mother, Bev, would struggle with substance abuse issues for most of his childhood and adolescence, inflicting severe emotional trauma on him and his older sister, Lindsay. On one occasion, she pulled over the car while she was driving him and threatened to severely beat him—until he escaped to a nearby house and had her arrested. On another occasion, her drug addiction spiraled so far out of control that she forced her teenage son to provide a clean urine sample so she could pass a drug test.
She also cycled through five marriages during this period of JD’s life, sometimes with men she’d only known for a few weeks. The instability was a major source of pain for him as he was growing up—he never had a true father figure and had a conflicted-at-best relationship with his biological dad. Bev would often force him to move in with her new men, taking him to new towns away from his friends and family, only for these people to be suddenly and unceremoniously removed from his life with their relationship with Bev ended.
JD’s maternal grandparents—Mamaw and Papaw, as he called them—saved JD from falling into the same dysfunctional pattern of life as his mother and so many other people in his community. They taught him that he was capable of anything if he worked hard enough and to never buy into the idea that the deck was stacked against him just because of the circumstances into which he’d been born.
JD recalls his Papaw staying up late with him to help him master advanced math concepts. Later in life, when he permanently moved out of his mother’s house as a teenager, his Mamaw (then a widow) provided him the safety, security, stability, and unconditional love that had been so sorely lacking from his biological parents. She made sure he did his homework, kept his room clean, and gave him the structure and the drive for success that would ultimately spur him on to bigger and better things. In one memorable story, his Mamaw saved up and purchased him an expensive, state-of-the-art graphing calculator, just so he could succeed in his advanced placement math class.
This personal investment in his future showed JD that there were people who loved him and would be willing to help him realize his potential. As JD himself puts it, his grandparents were “the best thing that ever happened to him.”
JD enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from high school. Enduring the emotional and physical toll of basic training taught him the virtues of self-reliance and showed him that he was capable of achieving far more than he had given himself credit for. He discovered that he had spent his whole life underestimating himself—thanks to his tumultuous upbringing in which he felt unloved and unwanted, and the hillbilly culture, which encouraged a deep pessimism and fatalism about one’s prospects in life.
After being discharged, JD went on to Ohio State and then to Yale Law School, where he discovered just how different his hillbilly upbringing had been from those of the upper-middle-class and wealthy people he was now surrounded with. At Yale, JD discovered the value of social capital—the networks of relationships that enable individuals to function and succeed. Having social capital meant access to people, institutions, and opportunities. JD realized how sorely lacking he’d been in this vital asset for all his life. But...
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The rural, white working-class in America is one of the most-studied, yet least-understood subsets of the country’s population. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, pundits, economists, and political commentators have struggled to make sense of why the once staunchly Democratic “hillbillies” of Appalachia have turned so sharply toward the Republican Party.
Beyond just partisan politics, Hillbilly Elegy sets out to examine why conditions have become so dire for this segment of the population. Through his narrative, JD Vance takes us through the history of how hillbilly culture and values spread beyond their heartland in Appalachia, why these norms and standards of conduct have become hindrances to upward mobility, and how the culture needs to change if it is to succeed in a...
Shortform note: As the title of the book would suggest, the term “hillbilly” is used frequently. Broadly speaking, it refers to poorer white people of Scots-Irish origins living in Appalachia, a large region east of the Mississippi River that spans the Appalachian Mountains, running from Georgia and Alabama in the south to New York in the north.
“Hillbilly” is often a slur, particularly when used by people from outside the culture. Vance, however, makes it clear that he considers the label to be a badge of honor that he wears proudly. We’ve followed his lead on this for the purposes of this summary and do not shy away from using the term to describe the culture and the people.
To fully tell his story, JD has to begin by telling his family’s story. Mamaw and Papaw were raised in Jackson, Kentucky, which they left in the 1940s when Papaw found work in the Armco steelworks in Middletown, Ohio.
Right from the outset, however, his family history was tinged with the loss, despair, and social dysfunction that would come to define so much of his own experience. Mamaw and Papaw left Jackson after Mamaw became pregnant as a teenager and gave birth to an infant who...
Think about how your background and culture influences your view of the world.
Think about your family’s history. Is there anything in it that you believe has shaped your worldview and values?
JD’s mother had once been a promising student and seemed on track to rise up from the poverty and abuse that had surrounded her as a child. Unfortunately, she fell into the same cycle of dysfunctional that she had learned from her parents. She married her high school boyfriend and quickly found her life beset by the drama, fighting, and violence that had so defined her parents’ marriage.
At nineteen, she gave birth to a child (JD’s older sister Lindsay), filed for divorce, and began life anew as a single mom. After remarrying in 1983, she gave birth to JD in 1984, in Middletown.
JD’s father was a man named Don Bowman, his mother’s second husband. JD remembers little from his early childhood before the age of six, but he does recall one particularly vivid memory from this period.
One day, his mother picked him up from kindergarten and told him, quite matter-of-factly, that he would never see his biological father again. Bev’s explanation was that his father “didn’t want him anymore” and wanted instead to give him up for adoption. This would be the first in a long series of father-figures who would come and go from JD’s life, a product of his...
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Explore the decline of rural, blue-collar America.
One of Vance’s major contentions is that culture, not economics, is behind much of the suffering in Appalachia and similar parts of the country. In a few sentences, share your opinions on this view.
These larger social, cultural, and economic trends were dramatically illustrated by the increasingly chaotic and disturbing events of JD’s personal life. When JD was eleven, his mother had to be hospitalized following a suicide attempt.
This was one of his first exposures to just how deeply damaged his mother was—and how much her struggles would come to define his formative years. Ultimately, through the love and guidance of his grandparents (especially Mamaw), JD would eventually come out on the other side of these traumatic experiences a better and stronger person. But his history with his mother still haunts him and he realizes that not everyone in those circumstances is as lucky to have two tough-as-nails hillbillies as his grandparents in their corner.
Although her marriage with Bob was loveless and marked by verbal and physical abuse, its deterioration clearly took a powerful emotional toll on her already-fragile and unstable psyche.
Bev began to turn to drugs and alcohol, and started having numerous affairs with strange men who would suddenly appear and then disappear from JD’s life. As a result, JD and his sister grew having no...
Explore how trauma and instability affect one’s outlook.
How do you think JD’s mother’s pattern of unstable relationships primarily affected him? Specifically, what lessons would it have taught him about family and domestic partnership?
When JD was 13, his grandfather passed away at his home. This was obviously a major event for everyone in his family.
Papaw was a man from another time and place who sometimes embodied the very worst aspects of hillbilly culture: he could be patriarchal, willing to resort to violence to resolve disputes, and clearly had a drinking problem that inflicted real trauma on his wife and children.
But he also managed to rise above the circumstances into which he’d been born and had provided a level of material comfort for his family that would have been unthinkable if he’d stayed in the hillbilly heartland where’d come from.
Most importantly, Papaw believed in the value and efficacy of hard work and tried his hardest to instill these ideals in his children and grandchildren. Papaw wouldn’t have denied that the family was poor or disadvantaged, but he would never rely on that as an excuse. To him, work mattered more than luck.
One of JD’s most powerful memories was of his Papaw staying up late to help him with math homework, so that JD was eventually able to master increasingly complex math problems. In doing this, Papaw taught JD that there was a difference between lack...
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Evaluate how public policy can help (or hurt) places like Middletown.
Vance argues that government has little role to play in addressing the concerns of people in communities like the one where he grew up. Do you agree or disagree? Explain why in a few sentences. Try to back up your argument with real-world information.
The final three years JD lived with Mamaw were transformative. He lost interest in drug experimentation, became a good student, aced his SATs, and discovered a love of learning and exploration.
He was happy, living in a stable environment, and felt for the first time that he had options in life. The next test was what to do with these options.
For most kids, including most of his friends, the next logical step would have been to go to college, but JD was unsure if this was the right move for him. For starters, so few people in his family had gone to college. It was an experience and a world that he felt little prepared for.
With his grades and test scores, he certainly had the option. But when the financial aid forms for Ohio State arrived in the mail, he was discouraged. He didn’t think that the cost (and the debt he’d incur) were worth it.
He also feared the intellectually rigorous and unstructured environment of college. He didn’t want to be completely on his own. He wanted to be somewhere that would help him capitalize on his potential, but still give him the guardrails and structure that would keep him on the right...
Learn how to capitalize on your existing strengths.
Have you ever under-estimated your ability to do something, only to prove yourself wrong later? Describe the situation in a few sentences.
JD finally enrolled at Ohio State in 2007, following his discharge from the Marines. Whereas the idea of going to college had seemed daunting when he was graduating high school, now he was fear-free.
After discovering what he was truly capable of in the Marines, JD felt empowered to take on any challenge. He was ready. As the university was in Columbus, Ohio, this was also JD’s first time in an urban setting, and he was taken with the city’s array of cultural opportunities.
College was a happy time for JD. Where he had nearly flunked out of high school, he was now earning straight As in every class at Ohio State. He also realized that he wanted to go to law school after completing his undergraduate studies. His thinking about this still reflected his upbringing. He wasn’t drawn to it by any passion for the law: it was simply that the rich kids’ parents in Middletown had either been doctors or lawyers, and he knew he didn’t want to work with blood.
During his undergraduate years, JD worked for a state legislator at the Ohio state capitol. The senator and JD shared the same brand of conservative politics and JD loved seeing how the political...
Explore the struggles and opportunities of upward mobility.
Think about JD’s experiences with discovering social capital. How have connections and relationships in your life opened doors to you that would have otherwise been closed?
JD had made it. He was a successful Yale lawyer. He had beaten the odds and achieved his slice of the American Dream. But his girlfriend Usha (soon to be his wife) helped JD realize that he still carried the baggage of his tumultuous upbringing. She pointed out that he still had no healthy mechanism of conflict resolution.
While he might not have taken to screaming, cursing, and vicious insulting like his mother, he would withdraw completely from her at the slightest disagreement. He feared becoming like Bev and desperately wished to avoid subjecting Usha to that experience.
On one occasion, Usha attempted to comfort JD after he’d performed badly in an interview with a Washington, D.C. law firm. He exploded at her in classic Bev-style, yelling, “Don’t make excuses for weakness. I didn’t get here by making excuses for failure.”
He eventually apologized, expecting her to pounce on this act of “surrender” and go for the jugular with him—because that’s exactly what his family back in Middletown would have done. But instead, she forgave him and explained to him that he needed to learn how to talk to her.
JD further saw how much healing he needed to do when he went to...
Make peace with trauma from the past while embracing the future.
Have you ever had a difficult relationship with a close friend or family member with whom you’re still in contact? How did you manage to reconcile your history with this person with your decision to keep them in your life?
So what's to take away from JD’s story? Clearly, his example shows that bright, motivated people can still achieve upward mobility in America, even if they come from circumstances of material and cultural poverty.
Growing up, JD witnessed painful traumas:
But he also had the love and support of his maternal grandparents, who shielded him from as much of the chaos as they...
Get into the weeds on the deeper issues explored in Hillbilly Elegy.
How do you think that the hillbilly “culture of honor” is harmful?