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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

J.D. Vance: Hillbilly for Congress

I’ve always identified as a Democrat. Maybe it’s because of my mother. Maybe it’s because I was raised to love my progressive hometown suburb: Shaker Heights, Ohio. Maybe it’s because I just like the color blue.

Therefore, when I set out to read J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” the 2016 memoir of the now Republican nominee for the 2022 U.S. Senate election in Ohio, I thought I’d hate the book.

The story dazzled me.

Vance is a descendant of Scots-Irish immigrants who settled in Jackson, Kentucky, a tiny Appalachian town where Vance spent his summers growing up.

At the age of 14 and 17, Vance’s maternal grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, moved to southwestern Ohio to avoid the stigma of an inadvertent pregnancy.

Vance’s Papaw earned a middle-class living and a good pension working for Armco Steel in Middletown, Ohio, a Midwestern mill town located directly between Dayton and Cincinnati.

The northward migration out of Appalachia in which the Vance family became caught up had come about thanks to the growth of the manufacturing sector in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Indiana and Michigan since the turn of the 20th century.

My own maternal grandfather, the son of an Italian immigrant who ended up in the West Virginia coal mines by way of Ellis Island, made it up out of Fairmont, West Virginia, to the University of Cincinnati through the G.I. Bill.

Vance came of age in a dysfunctional household of a drug addict and violent mother who retained a revolving door of father figures for a young Vance and his older half-sister.

America’s most famous hillbilly struggled with weight gain and brawled his way through adolescence due in part to the honor-bound and defiant Appalachian values instilled in him by his family of working-class white Americans without a college degree.

Finally moving in with his Mamaw toward the end of high school, Vance began to find success under a woman who provided him with a safe space to do homework. The reader cannot help but be struck by the potency of Mamaw’s acts of love. I never could have imagined what the purchase of a TI-89 calculator could mean for a family in Vance’s circumstances.

Still recovering from a 2.1 first-year-of-high-school GPA and nervous to take out student loans, Vance joined the Marines for four years right after high school. He served in Iraq and worked as a military journalist.

Vance went on to graduate with an undergraduate degree from Ohio State in less than two years, continued on to Yale Law School where he met his wife and finally settled down in Cincinnati to start his legal career.

According to published reviews of the memoir, the reason for the book’s popularity is tied to its role in explaining Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in 2016. This association is deeply troublesome to me.

The book does a superb job of shining a spotlight on the forgotten and downtrodden Americans of the Appalachian region. But J.D. Vance is the outlier and his ambitious rise to the top of American society does little to change the continual plight of descents of Scots-Irish and coal miners in Appalachia.

This is the story of a man leaving the hills, owing to generations of familial hard work, to become an elite. The reason why Vance sought Trump’s endorsement for his 2022 Senate campaign has nothing to do with why the white working-class voter wanted to vote for Trump in 2016.

I loved the memoir and may even vote for the man in November despite keeping up very little with the news and the polls pitting Vance up against his Democrat opponent Tim Ryan.

I will wish Vance success in office if he is elected, but I sincerely hope he doesn’t forget about the words that soothed me within the pages of his book.

Title: “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”

Author: James David Vance

If you like: Autobiography, memoir, non-fiction

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

Contact Peter Breen at