Book Discussion: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

6:00 PM - 8:00 PM
Manitowoc Public Library
Board Room

Event Details

Join MPL staff for a book discussion of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. Books are available near the service desk.

J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and spent many summers in the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and served in Iraq. A graduate of Ohio State University and Yale Law School, J.D. Vance has contributed to the National Review and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. He and his wife reside in San Francisco.


Hillbilly Elegy, the author's account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town, offers a broad, probing look at the struggles of American's white working class. The decline of this group has been widely reported, but J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

Members of the author's family struggled profoundly with the demands of life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

1. In what way is the Appalachian culture described in Hillbilly Elegy a "Culture in trouble?" Do you agree with the author's description of the book's premise?

2. Vance suggests that unemployment and addiction are self-inflicted and that the Appalachian culture is one of "learned helplessness" - individuals feel they can do nothing to improve their circumstances. Do you agree with his assessment? What could individuals do to improve their lives? Or are the problems so overwhelming as to be insurmountable?

3. What are the positive values of the culture Vance talks about in Hillbilly Elegy?

4. The author's mother is arguably the book's most powerful figure. Describe her and her struggle with addiction. How did the violence between her own parents, Mamaw and Papaw, affect her own adulthood?

5. To what - or to whom - does Vance attribute his escape from the cycle or addiction and poverty?

6. Discuss Vance's resentment toward his neighbors who were on welfare but owned cellphones.

7. Vance writes:

Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation...I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largess enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.

Does his book address those two separate but related issues satisfactorily?

8. Critics of Hillbilly Elegy accuse Vance of "blaming the victim" rather than providing a sound analysis of the structural issues left unaddressed by government. What do you think?

9. Journalists have written that Hillbilly Elegy was of specific importance during the 2016 United States presidential election, as Vance compassionately describes the white underclass that fueled the campaign of Donald Trump and a resurgence of outsider politics. After reading this book, do you agree with that assessment?

10. What does this book bring to the national conversation about poverty - its roots and its persistence? Does Vance raise the tone of discourse or lower it?

Background information and discussion questions courtesy of LitLovers

Event Type(s): Book Discussion
Age Group(s): Adults
Service Desk
(920) 686-3000