Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Like almost every other book I read, I watched this movie first. I thought that the movie was good, the actors played their roles really well, and the story was interesting. However, I felt that there was probably way more to this story than what they were portraying. Boy, was I right.

My aunt and I were talking about the movie and how we both wanted to read the book. She actually surprised me by sending a copy to me in the mail (special shout-out to Aunt Angie!).

***MAJOR MOVIE AND BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD***

I was surprised when I started reading that the book wasn’t set up like the movie. It didn’t start in the present with a major conflict that the main character was dealing with, it just started from the beginning of J.D.’s life.

It threw me off at first, but I liked it way better. Starting from the beginning really allowed us to see everything through J.D.’s eyes. We got all the background on his family in Kentucky, his Mamaw and Papaw’s move to Ohio and everything that led up to his childhood. It really helped to set the scene and give the reader the sense of hope for a better future by getting out of Kentucky.

If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know that his grandparents getting out of Kentucky wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. They never lost their “hillbilly” side and had very strong and aggressive personalities. It made his mothers life very difficult, which in turn made J.D.’s life difficult.

This sort of rut that they were stuck in is something that I think needs to be talked about more. I don’t think people realize it, but when you grow up in circumstances where you’re told this is all you’ll ever amount to and this is what you should expect from life, it’s really hard to get out of that. J.D.’s mom was smart and did well in school, but as he mentions ended up pregnant and divorced before she was even out of her teens. She was just a product of her environment and once she was caught up in it, she didn’t find her way out.

J.D. was on that path as well because he was also stuck in that environment. It wasn’t until he took control of his life and moved in permanently with his Mamaw that his life started to change for the better. Through a series of choices that he made, without any real goals, he became the exception to the rule. He made it to Yale. He made it out of poverty. He was able to improve his life and recognize that he wasn’t the norm for people who grew up the same way.

He also recognized that he didn’t do this on his own. He needed help and he needed people to help him figure out how to get that help. It was actually shocking to me as well when he realized that he could spend less going to Yale than he did going to a local college. It makes sense when you think about it, because there’s plenty of financial aid for people who need it when they go to college, and of course ivy-league schools have lots of money to give. It made really wonder how many people haven’t even tried because they didn’t think they could afford it. How many people were told that they couldn’t accomplish going to a better school because they would end up with too much debt?

Since I watched the movie first, I was shocked to find out that the entire conflict in the movie wasn’t even mentioned in the book. J.D. wasn’t interrupted during his dinner to find out his mother had overdosed and had to drive all night to make it to the hospital. He didn’t take her to a rehab where he had to pay with multiple credit cards. He didn’t catch her trying to use at a dirty motel.

There were mentions of similar situations, but nothing so dramatic as what they portrayed in the movie. It actually made the movie feel cheap and like a disservice to J.D. real, true story. They used his family’s problems to create a dramatic situation that took away from his accomplishment. They made it about Amy Adams, when it should’ve just been about how he got away from her.

It’s not often that I’m disappointed in movie adaptations, but this one is pretty bad in my opinion.

Everything he wrote about was real and interesting. It’s eye-opening and inspiring to see how someone from a totally different background can accomplish more than they ever thought was possible. It really does show that opportunity is out there, but it’s not as accessible as we think.

This was truly a great book and great story. I really hope that everyone who watched the movie takes the time to read the book.

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