Hillbilly Elegy is the most moving book of reporting we read last year. With poignant writing, realistic descriptions, and thought-provoking reflections, J.D. Vance takes us into lives and places many readers do not know or understand. The book has hard-to-forget scenes, such as when a mother’s rage terrifies young Vance, or when a 13-year-old girl writes on her boyfriend-rotating mother’s Facebook page, “Just stop. I just want you and this to stop.”
Vance shows us proud, dignified people who have given up; neglected kids victimized by their parents’ mistakes and vices; generational dysfunction that spirals all the way to the soul; and lonely, fellowship-deprived “faith” detached from gospel transformation. The people he describes don’t represent all Appalachians, but we glimpse an alienated, ignored group of fellow Americans—and Vance does not absolve his subjects of personal responsibility and human sin.
Vance grew up amid family chaos in southern Ohio but joined the Marines and graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law School. He loves his extended family but vividly describes its pattern of personal and financial irresponsibility. Happily, a handful of people inspired Vance to love learning, and his work in a grocery store—and seeing taxes from his small salary going to people who gamed the welfare system—turned him into a social critic who scolds both left and right for letting individuals off the hook.
Vance writes that churches help, but attendance of poor whites is low, and at a church he attended he “heard more about the gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any particular character trait a Christian should aspire to have.” Vance shows how young men who choose to work fewer than 20 hours per week or get fired for coming in late or stealing merchandise blame others for their failure, even though they don’t walk the values they praise in the abstract.
One caveat: Vance when growing up heard lots of obscenity and profanity, sometimes from people—like his grandma—who saved his life. He reports what he heard, so WORLD members who do not want to read raw words should not pick up this book. Crude language is a problem that reflects the bigger problems of miseducation and bad theology, and Hillbilly Elegy throws a spotlight on them.
Another problem is the breakdown of marriage, which is most evident among the poor. Even though it’s a history book, Ellen Wayland-Smith’s Oneida also made the short list in our Understanding America category. She documents the way heretical Christian beliefs led a group of “perfectionists” to pursue free love as a way to establish God’s kingdom on earth. John Humphrey Noyes established the Oneida commune in 1848. Members put to the test his teaching that “sexual love is not naturally restricted to pairs.”
After a few years of sexual anarchy that led to some Oneidans assaulting others, Noyes took charge and began deciding who could sleep with whom, ostensibly as part of a “selective breeding” program. (Noyes made sure that he could have a “joyful act of fellowship” with any woman he fancied, including 13-year-olds.) Eventually, Oneidans rebelled and the commune disintegrated, as dozens of other communes in American history have done. Wayland-Smith does not write from a Christian worldview, but the story she tells can warn us about increased cultural carnage to come if polygamy and eugenics become the new old thing.
Book of the Year
HILLBILLY ELEGY J.D. Vance (Harper)