A sign in Columbiana County, Ohio, shows support for Donald Trump on the day of the US presidential election. Photograph: Ty Wright/Getty Images

Teaching Hillbilly Elegy, the book and the movie

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance review – does this memoir really explain Trump’s victory?

“Some books stand alone, while others are almost impossible to assess outside the political and cultural debates of their time. In June 2016, a few months before the US election, a young Silicon Valley investment manager published a workmanlike memoir, which has become a No 1 New York Times bestseller. JD Vance had grown up poor in rust-belt Ohio, in a family that was, by his account, highly dysfunctional. His book describes how he transcended severe disadvantages to attend Yale law school and go on to a lucrative career. It follows the broad arc of the survivor story, a genre that has a special place in the US’s conversation with itself. Class mobility in America is stagnant and Vance is a statistical outlier. He should not have made it out of Middletown, Ohio. That he did, he ascribes to luck, character and the relative stability provided by his grandmother, known as “Mamaw”. Source the Guardian

Lesson plan

  1. Read an extract of the book here. Scribd
  2. Read the rest of the article in the Guardian
  3. Watch the movie on Netflix.
  4. You can either write your own article on the difference between what you read and the movie, about the review in the Guardian and the movie, or answer some of the questions below.


Questions: (source: Book club discussions. )

1. How did Vance’s grandparents get to Ohio? What are the two versions of the story of how and why they moved out of Kentucky? What does this economic migration people out of Appalachia do for communities? In what ways to Vance’s grandparents adapt, and not adapt, to their new life in Ohio? Do they see these changes positively or negatively?

2. Are you surprised at the kinds of violence that Vance encounters at home? Do you think the family themselves consider some of their behaviors violent?

3. In what ways is the absence of a father figure significant to the ways in which Vance constructs and learns masculinity?

4. Does religion become a grounding force for Vance? If so, how?

5. Why did Middletown experience an economic decline? What are some ways in which there are conflicts in attitudes towards work among the people of Middletown? If the American Dream does require forward momentum, could the people of Middletown achieve it?

6. From Vance’s analysis, why are people in places like Middletown, Ohio so distrustful of contemporary America? How do these perceptions and views feed into attitudes towards government and aspects of American society?

7. What is critique of modern conservativism does Vance offer? Do you agree with how he formed his theory?

8. How is seeing social mobility as a lifestyle change, in addition to a change in money and economics, significant? How does that recontextualize how we think about social mobility?

9. What is social capital? In what ways did social capital come to help Vance?

10. Vance talks about the difference between personal choice and cultural inheritance. How do you distinguish between actions and reactions based on personal choice versus cultural inheritance?

11. What public policy lessons does Vance outline from his experiences? How could they help the hillbilly community?

12. How would you describe the kind of effect Mamaw had on Vance? Do you see her as a largerthan-life presence in the book? Is there humor in her philosophies and ways of seeing, thinking, and talking about the world, in spite of any gruffness she may project?

13. The ability to adapt is a significant theme in Hillbilly Elegy. What are ways in which adaptability, or the success or failure of people or towns to adapt to circumstances or surroundings, is present in the book? What is significant about these adaptations and their respective successes or failures?

14. In what ways does Hillbilly Elegy encourage sympathy for conditions in which the hillbilly community finds itself, while simultaneously refusing to accept excuses for it?

15. Vance talks about hillbilly culture suffering from a lack of agency and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. How do we see Seligman’s “learned helplessness” in Hillbilly Elegy? How does it deepen the crisis for this community?

16. Thematically, in what ways is loyalty celebrated in Hillbilly Elegy? In what ways is loyalty problematic?

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