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Thursday, January 5, 2017


Published in 2016 by HarperAudio.
Read by the author, J.D. Vance.
Duration: 6 hours, 49 minutes.

Sometimes, I find it hard to write a review of an audiobook, especially an audiobook like this one. I find it hard - not because it is a bad book but because it is so good and I don't know how to convey my thoughts without giving a blow-by-blow book report of the book.

So, in short, J.D. Vance tells the story of his upbringing. He calls his family hillbillies but also calls that same group rednecks or poor white trash. When I was a kid in southern Indiana, we called them poor white trash. His family came from eastern Kentucky (as did part of my own a hundred years ago) and was part of an exodus from the area in the 1950s. These hillbillies brought their culture with them and Vance spends the rest of the book telling a dual story - the story of his family and the story of how this Appalachian culture is struggling in modern America.

The title of the book tells you that this is often a somber book since an elegy is a sad poem or song to praise and express sorrow for the dead. Vance's family history is not a particularly happy one, but it is far from universally tragic. I think that Vance is expressing sorrow for working class whites as a whole. Their culture is leaving them poorly equipped for the America they are born into.

Vance touches on this at one point, but as a teacher in an urban school system, I found that a lot of what he was talking about applied to what I see every day at school. What he talks about in this book can certainly be extrapolated out to apply to other cultures. In this case, what is more important is not race but poverty. It reminded me of the little bit of training I have had with Dr. Ruby Payne and her insights into generational poverty and its own unique culture. 

What works best with this book is Vance's technique of telling his own story and using it to illustrate larger insights into his own culture of generational poverty. You learn precisely because you start to care for people like his profane and loving grandmother - a woman that should not have been the impetus for Vance's success based on her track record with family relationships but ended up being the one person that made all of the difference.

This audiobook was read by the author. That can be tricky, especially if the author is not particularly a good reader. Vance is hardly a professional reader but his accent and tone make it better than a professional reader really could have.

I rate this audiobook an enthusiastic 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance.

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