J.D. Vance’s book is both an autobiography and a description of hillbilly culture, the culture of his family. (“Hillbilly” is a term that some believe is offensive and some—including Vance—embrace.) Vance was raised mostly by his grandparents, whom he called Papaw and Mamaw. As teenage newlyweds, his grandparents moved from Jackson, a coal-mining town in the hills of eastern Kentucky, to Middletown, Ohio, where they raised a son, Jimmy, and two daughters, Bev and Lori. In public, the Vances were fiercely protective of one another and not interested in middle-class rules of behavior. At home there was alcoholism and domestic violence. However, Papaw had a steady job at the steel mill where many of Middletown’s men were employed. Through hard work, Papaw and Mamaw became financially secure and able to provide for their children.
Jimmy, ten years older than Bev, left home after high school and thrived. Lori struggled at first, but she eventually found her way into a happy marriage and a career. Bev fared the worst of the three siblings. She was smart and liked science, and she planned to become a nurse after high school. Instead, she became pregnant in her senior year. She and her boyfriend married but soon divorced. After that, she cycled through one husband or boyfriend after another. She eventually earned her nursing degree, but then she lost her license because of repeated drug use. Meanwhile, Papaw and Mamaw separated but stayed close. After Papaw stopped drinking, they began making up for their earlier failures as parents. Bev’s children, Lindsay and J.D., were raised more by Pawpaw and Mamaw than by Bev.
As a place to live, Middletown began to decline sometime after J.D. was born. The reasons were partly economic but also partly cultural. The many hillbilly migrants who, like Papaw and Mamaw, came to Middletown after World War II had a strong work ethic. In the generation born in Middletown, however, it become common to think that things like good grades in school and punctuality at work were not important—that success in life was a matter of luck or raw talent, and failure was normal. According to Vance, this outlook persists in Middletown today, and is one of the most harmful aspects of hillbilly culture. The work ethic of Papaw’s and Mamaw’s generation has been lost.
After Papaw’s death, Bev’s mental condition and behavior went from bad to worse. When J.D. was a high-school sophomore, Mamaw saw that he was losing whatever chance he had of a normal life and a decent future. Mamaw insisted that J.D. leave Bev and her latest husband, to come live with her full-time. Finally, J.D. had a truly stable home life, supervised by an adult who cared about his school performance. His grades started to turn around, he gained valuable work experience at a local grocery store. He looked forward to attending Ohio State after finishing high school. But as graduation approached, J.D. felt unready for college. He joined the Marines instead. During the next four years, he learned adult skills he had not seen modeled before: how to stay in shape, how to work with others from different backgrounds, and how to handle himself in difficult situations. Most importantly, he learned that a person’s choices matter.
When J.D. Vance’s enlistment ended, he was so full of drive and discipline that he earned his bachelor’s at Ohio State within two years. At Yale Law School, however, he again ran into challenges that his background had not prepared him for. Luckily, he met a female classmate who coached him in the finer points of law school culture and later became his wife. A professor generously mentored him as he thought about his career goals and applied for jobs. He graduated from Yale and is now happily married, doing things as an adult he could hardly have imagined as a boy. Looking back, Vance is keenly aware of how much his success depended on others who helped him: Papaw and Mamaw, his sister Lindsay, and patient teachers and professors. From his wife, Usha, he learned that family conflict calls for patient, trusting conversation, not lashing out or withdrawal. The instinct to see every argument as a fight-or-flight situation is another product of Vance’s hillbilly upbringing. His ability to control his anger, as a husband and family man, is a thing to be grateful for.