Hillbilly Elegy: A Book Review

Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Harper Collins: New York, 2016.

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Hillbilly Elegy tells the true story of an Appalachian family struggling through three generations to keep it all together in a changing America. Like thousands of other families, the author’s family left their Appalachian mountain home in the first half of the twentieth century for the promise of a better life in the industrial Midwest fueled by the growth of the car and manufacturing industries.

For the subsistence farmers and coal miners of Appalachia, factory jobs promised better pay, safer work, and unrivaled pensions and benefits. Through the Great Depression and the post-war years, families left en masse from East Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky for cities and towns scattered across Ohio, Indiana and southern Michigan.

The author’s family was one of those families, moving from eastern Kentucky to settle in a southwestern Ohio factory town. 

The industrial promise of job security and middle-class prosperity served about one and a half generations well. But, under increasing pressure from international competition, Midwest manufacturing jobs began to dry up. When factories that used to employ thousands of people and support thousands of families closed down—or when, in order to remain competitive, the once good-paying manufacturing jobs with benefits and pensions became low-wage jobs with few benefits and even less job security—entire communities were economically and socially devastated.

Hillbilly Elegy tells this story of promise turned to crisis through the eyes of the author, a third-generation “hillbilly” migrant, and a member of a lost generation for whom the dream has largely become a nightmare and for whom there are no easy answers.

I devoured the book. It’s easily one of the best books of any genre I’ve read in the last ten years.

Available on Amazon. Click on the image.

Available on Amazon. Click on the image.

The book is exceptional for a few reasons.

First, it’s honest. Hillbilly Elegy is a remarkably honest portrayal of family struggles and triumphs, of fierce family loyalties and bitter family rivalries, and of the kind of heroically flawed people that make up all of our families.                             

Second, it’s exceptionally well-written. The author’s story is clearly and powerfully expressed with an uncommon depth of thought and self-reflection.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, the book is uncharacteristically balanced in its analysis—an analysis rendered inherently credible by the first-hand experience of the author.

Vance’s prescription for these struggling communities is uncharacteristically balanced in that it refuses to absolve either the individual or the larger society of blame for the current situation. Instead, it points to the need for both greater individual responsibility and greater societal accountability and engagement to move beyond the present crisis.

And, it is precisely because of his balanced approach that Vance’s prescription can serve as an important reminder for churches serving hurting people in hurting communities.

Too often, we describe the church as being at its best when it is prophetic toward the powerful and pastoral toward the downtrodden—when it afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.

Vance, though, reminds us that both the powerful and the downtrodden need to hear both prophetic and pastoral voices. 

So here are a few things the church can be reminded of in Vance's analysis.

First, we have a prophetic responsibility to clearly articulate a biblical vision of justice and equality to the corporate and political powers in our culture.  Our prophetic responsibility requires that we remind those in power that our faith compels us to exhibit a bias toward the most vulnerable among us. Many churches do that well.

But, as Vance reminds us, we also have a prophetic responsibility toward those who struggle—to individuals who need to be reminded of Christian accountability and God-honoring responsibilities to our families, our communities and ourselves.

That doesn’t mean that we should pile on the downtrodden, but it does mean that we can’t faithfully sit silently by in the midst of the moral decline and social decay that so often accompanies economic hardship.

The church also has a pastoral responsibility to minister to those most in need in our communities--to be God's presence for people in crisis. As a whole, we are generally pretty good about recognizing our pastoral responsibility to the downtrodden, although we would all do better to be more unconditionally accepting of all people in our churches--no matter their backgrounds or circumstances.

But Vance’s balanced approach reminds us that we have a pastoral responsibility, not just to the struggling, but to the civic and corporate leaders in our communities, too. We have a responsibility to comfort leaders who wrestle with tough decisions without easy answers;  to help instead of criticize them; to pray for and encourage them; and, to engage and work alongside them.

Our civic and corporate leaders need to be prophetically held accountable, but they need to know and feel the pastoral presence of the church, too.

The story that J.D. Vance so powerfully tells in Hillbilly Elegy resonates so deeply because his story isn’t just true to his experience, it’s true to many of our experiences as well.  His is a story of both struggle and hope familiar to coal-mining mountain towns, industrial Midwestern factory towns, struggling inner cities, and southern mill towns like Canton, GA, too.

Take the time to read it if you can. And remember the critical role of the church as we pray for God to redeem this culture in crisis.

See you Sunday.