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J. D. Vance’s New York Times bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy, is a compelling memoir about what it’s like growing up poor in the Rust Belt. A Marine veteran and Yale graduate, Vance tells the story of his family’s rise out of poverty in Appalachia and their struggle to claim a middle-class life in a slowly fading Ohio steel town. Through the lens of personal experience, Vance explores the lasting effects of poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence on future generations. He shines a light on the hopelessness and despair of people who were promised the American dream only to watch it slip beyond their grasp.
Hillbilly Elegy Discussion Questions
1.How would you describe Appalachian or “hillbilly” culture? Why does Vance believe it’s a culture in crisis?
2.According to Vance, why does drug and alcohol addiction have such a stronghold in Appalachia?
3.Vance paints a vivid portrait of his mother’s spiraling addiction. How does Vance link her addiction to her upbringing?
4.Mamaw and Papaw are two powerful characters in Vance’s childhood. What was their relationship like? Why did Vance’s relationship with Mamaw become such a driving force in his life?
5.Contrast Vance’s life in Middletown, Ohio, with his grandparents’ life in Jackson, Kentucky. How did moving to Middletown change his family’s identity?
6.What role does family play in Appalachian culture? Does “family” mean the same thing to Vance as it does to the rest of his family?
7.Vance paints a portrait of people who believe their situation is unchangeable and calls it “learned helplessness.” Do you agree with him? Why or why not? Why do think Vance was able to change his situation?
8.Why did Vance resent his neighbors who were on welfare? How does Vance portray people on government assistance?
9.What does Vance think will help resolve the crisis of Appalachian culture?
10.What does the title Hillbilly Elegy mean to you? What images are conjured by the word “hillbilly?” Why do you think the author chose this title?
11.What are the positive values of the culture Vance talks about in Hillbilly Elegy?
12.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, Mawaw and Papaw, affect her own adulthood?
13.To What—or to whom—does Vance attribute this escape from the cycle of addiction and poverty?
14.Talk about Vance’s own resentment toward his neighbors who were on welfare but owned cellphones.
15.Does Vance ultimately believe in the mythical American Dream by the end of his journey? If so, how does he believe children from similar backgrounds can achieve it?
16.By the end of the book, how does Vance ultimately feel about the hillbilly code of honor he was taught to obey as a child? What has led him to this sentiment?
17.How does Vance support his claim that the problem the hillbillies face is a sociological one?
18.What are some of the values promoted by the hillbillies? How do these values inform the themes and broader messages of the book?
19.What is the Section 8 law mentioned in the book, and how do Vance and his grandmother see it helping or hurting the community?
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