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Littler Books cover of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis Summary

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis Book Summary, Notes, and Quotes

J.D. Vance

4 minutes to read
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What it's about in a one sentence summary:

A personal analysis of poverty and upward mobility of white working-class Americans.

Bullet Point Summary, Notes, and Quotes

  1. Despite the JD's working-class Appalachian background and family struggles with poverty, addiction, and domestic violence, he achieved upward mobility against the odds.
  2. JD states the goal of the memoir is not to showcase his own success, but to provide insight into the lived experiences and psychological impacts of poverty.
  3. Hillbillies descend from Scots-Irish Americans who migrated to the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. For them, "poverty is the family tradition" and few earn college degrees.
  4. Although JD spent childhood in Middletown, Ohio, where many hillbilly families worked in steel mills, he identifies Jackson, Kentucky, where his grandparents lived, as his true home.
  5. As a child, JD soaked in stories that glorified hillbilly values like loyalty, honor, and justice.
    1. In one story, one man insulted his Uncle Pet's mother, so Uncle Pet beat him unconscious and cut him up with an electric saw.
  6. Hillbillies in the Appalachian region face rampant drug addiction and largely consume unhealthy sugary diets.
  7. JD's grandparents married as teenagers in 1947 and moved from Kentucky to Ohio for a better life.
    1. Many worked in coal mines. Papaw (grandpa) worked at Armco Steel.
    2. Mamaw and Papaw had three kids, including JD's mother Bev and Aunt Wee.
    3. Papaw drank heavily, Mamaw scorned it, and domestic violence erupted often, culminating when Mamaw lit Papaw on fire as he slept. Aunt Wee, 11 at the time, saved him. Papaw eventually quit drinking years later.
    4. “Like everyone else in our family, they could go from zero to murderous in a f**king heartbeat.”
  8. Children who witness domestic violence face higher odds of difficult lives themselves.
    1. Aunt Wee overcame turbulent childhoods but his mother Bev struggled with addiction and unstable relationships.
    2. Bev birthed JD amidst a second failing marriage then married Bob Hamel, bringing fleeting stability in which JD attended school and discovered his interest in reading.
    3. “In my immature brain, I didn't understand the difference between intelligence and knowledge. So I assumed I was an idiot.”
  9. Though flawed, Bev and Mawmaw valued education and worked to pass that belief to her children.
  10. Mamaw and Papaw lived nearby and were a huge part of JD's childhood, but when Bev and Bob moved the family away to gain more autonomy, JD lost daily access to his beloved grandparents, his best friends.
  11. Bev and Bob fought frequently, often throwing plates during disagreements. The chaotic homelife affected JD's performance at school and kept him and his sister (Lindsay) awake late at night.
  12. Bob discovered that Bev had an affair. Bev attempted suicide by driving into a pole after Bob asked for a divorce. Mamaw thought Bev wasn't really trying to kill herself but just wanted to divert the attention away from the affair.
  13. JD, Lindsay, and Bev moved back even closer to the grandparents after the suicide attempt. Bev continued her irresponsible behavior and pattern of unstable relationships.
  14. During one argument Bev was having with JD in the car, Bev threatened to crash and kill them both. JD escaped and ran into a stranger's home and police were called. Bev was arrested and trialed for domestic violence. JD lied to protect Bev and to secure an agreement to live with his grandparents whenever he wanted.
  15. When Pawpaw died, Mamaw showed a rare instance of emotional vulnerability. Bev was devastated and emphasized to her children that they have no right to be sadder than her because Papaw was her father.
  16. Bev became addicted to prescription drugs, arrested for attacking her new husband, and was admitted to a rehab center. During this time, JD relied on Lindsay, who was still in high school, for support.
  17. Later, JD went to live with his born-again Christian biological father Don, drawn to the stability of his religious rules despite Don's past history of abuse. However, feeling unable to relax there, JD spent the summer with Mamaw, though ultimately moved back with a newly sober Bev to avoid overburdening his grandmother.
  18. In high school, Bev's addiction and relationships continued. After years of fruitlessly supporting her recovery, JD moved permanently in with Mamaw. His grades and discipline improved, and avoided drugs and alcohol unlike most of his peers. JD even got into Ohio State University, but JD felt unprepared and decided to join the Marines.
  19. Though she encouraged JD to go to OSU, Mamaw still supported JD through Marine boot camp. His experience as a marine transformed him and gave him confidence and self-agency.
  20. Mamaw died right before his deployment to the 2005 Iraq War, leaving him truly independent for the first time.
  21. When JD returned, he completed his OSU degree in less than two years while working multiple jobs. Then he was accepted to Yale Law School.
  22. At Yale, JD met his future wife Usha, who helped him navigate his life among the mostly wealthy and elite.
  23. JD found himself still drawn back to support his troubled community.
    1. Once, he had to travel back to Middletown to pay for his mother's motel after her fifth husband kicked her out for using heroin.
    2. “For those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”
  24. JD embraces the responsibility to help other youth facing similar demons manage upward mobility.
  25. JD uses personal anecdotes to argue that a lack of work ethic and welfare recipients' rejection of personal accountability as reasons for Appalachia's poverty and rightward political swing.
    1. “People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30% of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.”
    2. “Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness' when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life.”
    3. “Whenever people ask me what I'd most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don't matter.'”
    4. “There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44% share that expectation.”
    5. “I don't know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”
  26. JD believes that the best way to construct paths to upward mobility is not through policy changes, but societal and cultural shifts that encourage family, religion, and education.
    1. “Religious folks are much happier. Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don't attend church at all.”
    2. “Social mobility isn't just about money and economics, it's about a lifestyle change. The wealthy and the powerful aren't just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.”

Hillbilly Elegy: Resources