Making a Bestseller

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

By J.D. Vance

Many readers enjoy inspirational and aspirational memoirs, especially well-written ones of the rags to riches bootstrap variety, which J. D. Vance’s certainly is. Probably, then, it would have done well based on its own merits, of which there are several. However, just like having the right mentor when young, an inspirational person to direct and bolster you, and an opportunity to understand and realize your innate abilities—all these having helped Vance escape the fate of his contemporaries, timing often proves the extra sauce that propels something, such as a book of this sort, into the stratosphere. After all, people seek help in understanding who comprise the diehard constituency of perhaps the most unorthodox candidate ever to run for the U.S. presidency.

Thus the question probably on the minds of many considering Hillbilly Elegy is, Does it deliver on understanding these unbudging supporters? Yes, in many ways it does by painting a vivid picture of those left behind by an increasingly global economy, where the real rewards—not just financial but psychic—accrue to those able to prosper in that no longer mythic knowledge economy. Vance accomplishes this by going beyond the usual discussion of economic reality, delving into the community and psychology of one group, Hillbillies, those people who migrated from busted coal mining communities in Kentucky and other Appalachian towns to once industrial growth areas like Middletown, OH, where the author grew up.

Essentially, the book divides into two parts: Vance taking us on a journey through his life from a rough and poor boyhood to success at Ohio State and Yale, and pulling back from time to time to understand why he has been able to break out of a cycle that traps many with beginnings like his. Many will find some of his thoughts useful, primary among them the concept of learned helplessness and the power of having people and organizations (he was a Marine) around you to show you how to take advantage of the possibilities before you; a bit of initiative as opposed to a comprehensive program pushed down on you from on high. w/c


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