Recommended Reading: Hillbilly Elegy


Merriam-Webster defines an elegy as " a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead."  As a college-educated, middle-class white woman I had no idea what that word meant, I had to look it up.  I thought it was interesting that the author, J.D. Vance, chose to use a word most hillbillies would have no understanding of as part of his title.  But maybe this book isn't intended for a hillbilly, but for those of us that are not and do not understand the first thing about this culture?

As a recent transplant to Kentucky via residence in northern Minnesota for 18 years (originally from California) I was curious to get a non-stereotypical picture of the hillbilly culture from a native.  I got so much more! 

I would highly recommend this book for anyone - whether you live in Kentucky or not.  The personal perspective, cognitive and emotional insight, as well as the sociocultural awareness gained in this book is incredible.  I believe anyone familiar with ACEs - especially those with high ACEs - will feel right at home.

Vance doesn't mention adverse childhood experiences until page 226, but he doesn't have to.  We see and feel ACEs on every page.  Once he gets to the term he does a fantastic job of explaining ACEs in a way anyone can understand.  

There is a bit of language that may offend some, but to be honest, even with my sensitivity, I was not offended.  The language adds authenticity to the story and provides insight to the real-life characters, especially Mamaw.  

The best part of this particular "lamentation" is that there's a happy ending.  An ending full of hope and possibility for everyone - whether your ACE is 0 or 10.



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I can understand these perspectives...there are so many individual differences, perceptions, supports, etc.  I shared it simply because it is one of those perspectives.  I know that there are some that may be discouraged as you note Karen, but others may be encouraged and strengthened.  You can't please (or help) all the people all the time with just one book.  I would hope that one book, written from a personal experience wouldn't "shame those with less resources and opportunities" but it's possible.  I actually thought I was sharing the book on our Embracing Aces in Lexington page, not on the home page  Sorry if it offended anyone.  

It's an interesting and important read, but I agree with Lori that he really does espouse an attitude of "if I could do it, why can't you?" He not only had ACES, but a lot of protective factors in his family, people he could count on, and a very powerful mentor that took him under her wing at Yale. Although he is clearly admirable, I worry that by holding him up as an example, we shame those with less resources and opportunities who can't succeed like that rather than learn to give them what they need to do so.

I think we need to be careful to assume that what we don't know, others couldn't possibly.  Perhaps hillbilly culture is quite familiar with the term elegy and that is why the author chose it?  Regardless, this is an interesting read, as are most memoires.  It will be far more palatable for conservative readers as there is an underlying bootstrap philosophy woven through his story, and an overarching criticism of public safety net resources perpetuating poverty and strengthening learned helplessness.  This aspect of the book, in my opinion, is counterproductive to the movement.  He references teachers providing stable, supportive relationships in his life and of course his savior is his grandmother.  For readers familiar with the ACEs research and the science of toxic stress and trauma, this book will validate the science, for those who are not, it could confirm for the reader that if you just try hard and make good choices in life, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, in essence, the American Dream.  There is far too much evidence that this is simply not true for many people who suffer relentless and damaging stress throughout their lives in the absence of healthy, supportive and nurturing relationships.  I agree, however, that it is an important read and full of hope. Thank you for sharing.  Warmly, Lori

I think one of the best things he talked about as far as "solutions" goes was that "public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us...problems weren't created by governments or corporations or anyone else...we need to create a space for the JDs and Brians (real people in the book) to have a starts when we stop blaming...and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better."  (p 255-256). 

Something I love about ACEs Connection...we are all asking ourselves what we can do to make things better!

Such a great book. I listened to it on Audible as I packed to move last month. It brought up so, so much about growing up in the south, how much pride and anger “runs the show” here. Though I really believe that is true throughout most of humanity. But KY - OH - the south? There seems to be a special dose of it and Vance’s ability to explain it, explain ACEs? You are so right, Stacey. He does a terrific job of tying together the personal ACEs and the community ACEs. 

I am so glad I listened to it. Glad you reviewed it and posted. Thanks!