Educated & Hillbilly Elegy

educatedEducated – After reviewing my stats for 2018, I felt there weren’t enough reads I’d loved enough to wave the four or five star paddle, so I decided to pull out some big guns to start the year with this one which came recommended by none other than Barack Obama.

This tale of Tara – a Mormon, whose extremist father set the tone for the life his family would lead – one of isolation, of prepping for the End of Days – constantly surprised me. Her father’s behaviour – which was hectoring to say the least, bullying, reckless, and downright dangerous in reality – Tara later believed was was down to his being bi-polar. He endangered the lives of his family – two serious car crashes, horrific burns, head injuries, all with no access permitted to medical services – yet still his powerful personality ensured that those of his children who chose to leave home to receive an education could end up cut off from their remaining family. Having been prevented from entering the school system, Tara (and her brothers) had to self-educate. I never got my head around algebra, so how Tara managed, with the assistance of her brother, truly amazed me.

Tara – eventually – chose to get an education. Indeed, she and two of her brothers achieved their doctorates. The other members of her family remained uneducated, yet absolutely convinced of their rightness and of the wrongness of their educated siblings.

Tara is at pains to ensure we don’t put this behaviour down to the Mormon religion. This is extremism, pure and simple.
4 out of 5


hillbilly elegyHillbilly Elegy – I’m glad I didn’t notice the second half of the sub-title A Memoir of Family and a Culture in Crisis, as what I really fancied was a family memoir, having just finished a massive tome of WWII history.

Whilst browsing through the unread depths of my kindle, I did that thing I used to do in bookshops – I started reading to see if I took to the book’s voice. It’s always been important for me to hear an authentic voice and J D Vance’s voice positively leapt off the page.

We’ve all heard the term “poor white trash”, hell we’ve probably even used it from time-to-time ourselves, but how many of us have first hand experience of that life? JD grew up in Middletown Ohio, the son of an addict and grandson of hillbillies. His grandparents left the hills of Kentucky to find a new life for themselves and their family, but their hillbilly ethos came too.

JD was bright, fortunate to always have the love and support of his older sister and his grandparents – Mamaw and Papaw – and with the support and advice from other key individuals in his life, reached his 30s with a life he’s described as the American Dream. But JD didn’t just leave and not look back, he loved his hillbilly roots, his neighbours and family, and wanted to understand how and why they ended up with the lives they did.  This book is the result of that process.

It’s not perfect, but it is an honest, first-person account of that experience and JD’s thoughts on why he made it when others from his background generally did not.
3 out of 5


So, why have I linked these two books? For the simple reason that they write about life in parts of the US with which I am less familiar. I’m fascinated by people, by their personal stories and histories. I’m perenially interested in how they make choices and how they end up living the lives they lead.  I found it especially informative to read these accounts as they’re written from the perspective of individuals who’ve been able to break away from the path most travelled by their peers.

What particularly struck me was I didn’t feel either were written from a place of smugness. Instead, I felt both were written with love, a frustrated or sad love perhaps, but love nonetheless.

© Debra Carey, 2019

6 thoughts on “Educated & Hillbilly Elegy

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  1. Hillbilly Elegy is one of those books that I tell people to read if they want to truly understand the resentments that underscore much of American political life. I grew up in a small Ohio town similar to Middletown, and while Vance’s story is not mine it is the story of many of the kids I went to school with. I’ve heard of Educated and now want to read it. Thanks for the review of it.

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  2. Interesting comments Debs. I read Educated last year then had to reread it for Book Club. I got a lot more out of it on 2nd reading – Tara’s sheer guts and strength of character for one. Elegy is on my TBR pile. You should try An American Marriage (another Obama recommendation).

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  3. Ally, some time after I read it but while preparing this post, I discovered that a number of people recommend this as a read which helps to explain “Trump’s America”. I also discovered a number of very angry and dismissive reviews which led me to believe that Vance may have been touching a nerve. Really interesting to hear that you recognise the story being told from your early years. I hope you get a chance to read it and I’d love to hear your views once you have.


  4. Sarah, you’re absolutely spot on about Tara’s guts and strength of character – I was in awe of her in so many ways. I hope you find Elegy an interesting read. I’ve just read American Marriage after seeing your recommendation of it and wasn’t aware it was another of Obama’s – what an interesting book. In some ways, I wish I was still a member of a book club but, for now, online will have to suffice!


  5. Hillbilly Elegy is on my list to read. It seems that everyone who has read it speaks only highly of the book.

    Educated is one that’s new to me. To be honest, I find these kinds of stories hard to read. Ultimately they are success stories but the journey there is a frightening one.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Joanne, Educated describes a childhood I’d have found distressing & I say that as a someone who was brought up in a couple of scary places experiencing civil unrest & civil war – but I never had to doubt my parents or siblings. It is an excellent book if you ever decide to read it, but I totally get why you may not. There’s a few excellent books out there which I simply cannot bring myself to read either.


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