In the late 19th century, a fight broke out between the Hatfields and McCoys along the border of Kentucky and West Virginia. The dispute, which originated in part over a pig, grew into a bloody conflict over each family’s honor, with many murders over several decades. J.D. Vance, a distant descendant of the Hatfields, sees echoes in the present day of the tribal mind-set that inspired the original rivalry and believes that it keeps people like him from thriving in 21st-century America.
Mr. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” is a beautiful memoir but it is equally a work of cultural criticism about white working-class America. Social scientists have long studied the problems plaguing this group—like joblessness, divorce and addiction. But Mr. Vance has lived them, and he offers a compelling explanation for why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to make it. He focuses, in particular, on people from Appalachia, a vast territory that spans from New York to Alabama, where, he writes, “the fortunes of working-class whites seem dimmest.”