It’s hard not to see Hillbilly Elegy in the context of this moment in history, following a Trump victory powered by white working class votes. The AP listed this as one of the books that received a “Trump bump” and wrote that “liberals befuddled by Trump’s victory turned to Vance’s memoir about his relatives in rural Kentucky and Ohio’s rust belt.”
Yes, this book is partially a political critique, or as the New Republic put it, “the liberal elite’s white trash–splainer.” But it shouldn’t be seen only through a political lens.
Aside from the Trump bump, this is a conventional triumph-over-adversity, rags-to-riches and fish-out-of-water story. And we love a good success story.
This fits our narrative, even if Vance tries to make clear that he’s a fortunate exception to the rule. It’s an entertaining and engrossing read on the story’s merits (I wish I could have met his colorful Mamaw).
Truthfully, I can see some of my own upbringing in Hillbilly Elegy, having grown up in rural Wisconsin before ending up at a private university — though neither my highs nor lows compare to Vance’s. And because of that, I don’t think this story is just about 2016. It goes much deeper than that.
In Hillbilly Elegy, I recognize in the characters some of the blue collar personalities I met while working in a warehouse and as a baggage handler. I think about writing obituaries for two of my high school classmates who were killed in Iraq. I think of Obama’s Commencement address to Howard University that said “we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling” including “the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.”
Of course, there are political lessons to be learned from this book. But I hope people don’t get too caught up in the political backdrop of this book to simply learn about the culture, history and background that Vance calls hillbilly America.