Chapters 2–4 

Summary: Chapter 2

Vance’s Papaw and Mamaw both came from families with proud reputations in the often-violent culture of the Jackson area. Soon after they married, however, they moved to Middletown, Ohio. Mamaw was fourteen and pregnant, Papaw was seventeen and able to work, and there were better jobs in steel-mill towns like Middletown than in the coal mines near Jackson. Papaw and Mamaw were part of a post-World War II wave of hillbilly migrants who settled in places such as Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. The families they left behind expected them to stay in touch and visit often, which meant frequent long car trips back to the hills. Meanwhile, the established locals looked down on the new arrivals with their many children and their odd habits. In Middletown, a friend of Papaw and Mamaw’s got into trouble by slaughtering chickens in his front yard. Papaw and Mamaw themselves once had a violent, merchandise-throwing confrontation with a pharmacy clerk. The hillbilly migrants believed in hard work, however, and their economic circumstances steadily improved. Papaw and Mamaw believed that their children were getting a head start on a better life.

Summary: Chapter 3

Jimmy was Papaw and Mamaw’s oldest child by ten years. After many miscarriages, Mamaw gave birth to Bev, and then Lori less than two years later. Outwardly, the family’s life was middle-class, but privately Papaw became an alcoholic. When Mamaw’s brothers came to visit, Papaw would go drinking and womanizing with them. When the family was alone and Papaw was drunk, he was violent. Mamaw retaliated creatively. She would cut Papaw’s pants to make them burst at the seams. She served him fresh garbage as dinner. One night she set Papaw on fire as he slept. One of the girls quickly smothered the flames. 

The family conflict took its toll on the children, who all left home as soon as they could. Jimmy went on to a successful career, but Lori and Bev ended up in troubled marriages of their own. Eventually, Papaw quietly quit drinking, and although he and Mamaw separated, they remained close and began making up for their bad parenting. After they helped Lori—“Aunt Wee,” as J.D. called her—get out of her bad marriage, she remarried happily and worked in radiology. Bev was less successful. Papaw and Mamaw paid her nursing school costs, they supported her through rehab, and when she neglected her two children—Lindsay and J.D.—Papaw and Mamaw looked after them.

Summary: Chapter 4

When J.D. was born in 1984, Middletown was a thriving working-class community. During his boyhood, however, it began to decline. Poverty and crime rose, while falling property values made it hard for homeowners to relocate. Efforts to revitalize the once-bustling downtown shopping district failed. The causes of Middletown’s decline were largely economic. The town’s biggest employer was Armco, a steelmaker. When hard times hit, Armco survived by merging with the Kawasaki corporation, but it hired fewer workers than before. J.D. and his peers did not take notice, because they planned to be veterinarians, doctors, preachers, or businessmen when they grew up. 

However, few in J.D.’s generation had realistic ideas about how to achieve their goals. The examples of the adults around them communicated that there was no shame in bad grades, and that being unemployed and on welfare was normal. It was widely assumed that success was a matter of luck or raw talent and had little to do with hard work—attitudes that the author believes persist in Middletown today. Papaw and Mamaw taught J.D. otherwise. They made sure he learned math, and they provided him with books and a library card. Mamaw checked on his grades. They insisted that he was going to go to college, and they worked with him to make that happen.

Analysis: Chapters 2–4

Vance suggests that one aspect of hillbilly culture that tends to sabotage success is hillbillies’ tendency to criticize poor people who attempt to improve their situation. Vance’s grandparents’ family was criticized by people in Kentucky for having the audacity to leave home in search of a better life. When the Vance family settles in Middletown, Ohio, they struggle to fit in and adapt even though they achieve some financial success. Vance describes the family as living two lives: their public life was economically and socially successful, but their home life was violent and dysfunctional. These two lives had to be kept separate because the hillbilly code of loyalty demands that people never say anything bad about their family to outsiders. This split between public and private life illustrates how hillbillies who reach economic and social success still experience dysfunction at home. For Vance, having to live two different lives added to the difficulty of his situation.

Vance frames Middletown as a symbol for America by describing the economic changes that have occurred there over the years. He uses the metaphor “more erosion than mudslide” to describe the way Middletown gradually transformed over time. Many retail shops and restaurants closed, and people slowly began to avoid the once-bustling downtown after dark. The Sorg Mansion, once a stately home owned by a wealthy family, now serves as a symbol of the town’s decay. Vance describes a type of residential segregation that developed based on economic status rather than race, and he provides data to support the idea that high numbers of poor white people are moving into high-poverty neighborhoods, not just in Middletown but across the country. Vance describes Middletown as “little more than a relic of American industrial glory” and suggests that based on statistical trends, many other American towns are headed in the same direction.