J.D. Vance’s fascinating memoir about growing up with his hillbilly relatives offers glimpses into why so many Americans in the white working class are angry and pessimistic.
Vance is a conservative, young Republican who survived a tumultuous childhood. His family started out in Kentucky’s Appalachia and migrated to Ohio to find work at growing factory towns. His young mother struggled with drug addiction that led to fights with the various men in her life. In high school Vance experimented with drugs and his grades began to suffer from “the constant moving and fighting the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget.’’
As a teenager he eventually moved in with his grandmother, whom he called Mamaw, and she helped turn his life around. She was not your typical, sweet grandma. This cursing, tough woman routinely threatened to shoot people with her shotgun or run them over with her car if they didn’t do what she wanted. She instilled in her grandson the need to get a good education and to work. When he needed an expensive graphing calculator for school, she scrimped and saved to make sure he had one.
Vance eventually joined the U.S. Marines for four years and served in Iraq. When he came home, he was the first in his family to go to college. After graduating from Ohio State University, his application was accepted at the elite Yale Law School, an experience that was sometimes surreal to this son of poor hillbillies.
The author has been interviewed on various news shows and has written newspaper columns trying to explain why so many of his people support Donald J. Trump for president. While Hillbilly Elegy is more of a memoir and less of a political commentary, it does shine light onto why a large part of the American electorate feels forgotten and disenfranchised. It also is a compelling and classic American success story about how Vance overcame difficult circumstances because he had a few influential people in his corner.