Book review: Hillbilly Elegy | J.D. Vance

The idea of “hillbilly” conjures up images of the Beverly Hills Clampetts; a comical depiction of working class American country folk that lack the manners and sensibility of the broader urban population. With this in mind, I was surprised to be recommended this book by a trusted colleague who thought its analysis of societal impacts on political outcomes in the USA might be of interest applied in an Australian context. Right he was. What I didn’t expect was the insightful exegesis on family.

While the book explores a variety of societal issues, Vance uses the personal story of his family to communicate them and the reader can relate. We all have families. Those families have issues and no-one is perfect. Frankly, the way Vance describes his family through telling stories is fascinating.

In this age of media portraying apparent public outrage as a norm, one might ask why a snapshot of one American family might offer insight for Australian communities. This question is answered in evident parallels as we observe American influence on Australian life. Traditional Australian culture seems to align itself more closely with ambivalence than outrage (“She’ll be right, mate”) and hillbilly country contentment might strike comparisons to our own Australian sense of satisfied complacency. If Vance is to be believed, leveraging disappointment and trial, perhaps observed in our families, to motivate a quest for a better life can lift a person above their station. Vance’s grandmother, and later in the book his now wife, seem the characters most formative in the development of Vance into adulthood through their persistent care and resilience.

The enduring idea of Hillbilly Elegy seems that a fearless and protective love of a family member, however flawed that person and how difficult circumstances they face, can make the difference for a young person as much as any government policy or political persuasion. The book’s film adaptation, directed by Ron Howard and starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams, is in production now so sneak in a read before the film reimagines the story on your behalf. It’s well worth it.

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