Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance


Unknown-1As my friends and family know, being an Ohioan is important to me.  Although I’ve lived in Massachusetts for nearly 30 years, I grew up in Dayton and it will always be home.  It is a reflex for me to “stick up for Ohio.”  I know how much the state has changed, and looking back can be hard. But I never miss an opportunity to bring up the Wright Brothers and John Glenn and Neil Armstrong – all people, as my husband likes to remind me, who went to extraordinary measures to leave Ohio!


Our house outside of Boston is a place for me to display Ohio swag. Our front door knocker is a buckeye. Our bulletin board is shaped like the state of Ohio. And, thanks to my sisters, I have a wide variety of Ohio t-shirts!

That being said, going home makes me sad.  I love seeing my family and eating the best chocolates in the world from Esther Price, but every time I drive through Dayton, I feel despair.  My dad, a Dayton native who worked as an electrician for thirty-five years, points out the closed factories and tells me about members of our extended family who struggle to find work.  There are bright lights, including the University of Dayton and the Dayton Art Institute, but there are too many boarded-up businesses in the small towns outside of Dayton.

I’ve read countless articles about the challenges of the white working class and the disappearance of well-paying factory jobs, but understanding it doesn’t make it easier.  I miss the vibrant mid-sized city where I grew up.

The first time I heard about J.D. Vance’s new book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, was on NPR. I immediately drove to the nearest bookstore, bought it, and then called my dad to suggest that we read it together.  It was not an easy read for us.  Vance’s story of growing up in Middletown, Ohio, although it differs in the specifics, is not so far from our own.  I recognize the people he describes. Hillbilly Elegy helped me make sense of what I’m seeing and is the best explanation I’ve read so far of why Trump’s message resonates with large groups of voters.

Today’s New York Times includes a review of Hillbilly Elegy that includes this passage:

“And he (Vance) frames his critique generously, stipulating that it isn’t laziness that’s destroying hillbilly culture but what the psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness” — the fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.  What he’s really writing about is despair.”

Here’s a link to the review:

Reading Vance’s moving book brought up lots of emotions: sadness, frustration, understanding. But above all, it made me hopeful. I am hopeful that stories like this one will contribute to the national dialogue about jobs and the changing economy that could result in policies that will revitalize small towns.

I know how lucky I am to live in the Boston area. It’s a dynamic city that has given me opportunities I could only dream about as a child growing up in Dayton – and I’m grateful. But the Boston area has lots of fans. I will continue to watch for signs of growth and opportunity 850 miles away in my hometown.



4 thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

  1. I just read the NPR article the other day and put this on my list of books to read. Living in a struggling suburb of Cleveland I recognize the feelings you expressed all too well. I always am trying to encourage my son, nephew, and niece to spread their wings and think outside of Elyria/Cleveland….although Cleveland does Rock! (We Ohio folks will always defend our state/city)

    • Carie! I am so happy to hear from you – and yes, you would really find Hillbilly Elegy a good read.
      It helped me to understand my “home,” and to make sense of its changes. I hope you are
      all doing well…..let me know how Zander is doing!

  2. As a fellow transplant to Boston – though I grew up in Texas – I’m also intrigued by this book. I am struggling to make sense of the current political cycle too, and this sounds like a fascinating read.

    • Hi Katie!
      It really is – the most compelling book I’ve read about the “place” we find ourselves in. By the way, you inspired me to add Radio Girls and Cooking for Picasso to my “to read” list..I always look for your name on the Shelf Awareness emails!!

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