J.D. Vance comes from a long line of hillbillies. His family started out in hillbilly country in Kentucky, but then he and his mom moved to hillbilly country in Middletown, Ohio. Although he lived in Middletown, he always harkened back to his grandparent’s home in Jackson, Kentucky, in the Holler, which he considered home.
His family was dysfunctional by most standards, but his grandparents instilled within him, a desire to achieve. Fortunately, he spent a good deal of time with them, in Kentucky, but the most important time was during his high school years, when he lived with his mamaw. She had great expectations for him. Even though her own methods were crude, her language foul, and she was sometimes violent and had little regard for rules, regulations or laws, she managed to propel him toward a brighter future than she had and to motivate him with her real affection and respect for him.
Violence was an accepted part of hillbilly culture, especially when it came to defending the insults to a member of the family. Their acts of retribution were never discussed or addressed by the law; they went unpunished. It was simply the hillbilly way of life. The culture was one of drugs and alcohol abuse; it was perpetuated by a continuing lack of morality, ethics, education, outside support, and, most important, a lack of responsibility for one’s one actions. The hopeful future of many of the young girls was often cut short by unplanned, early pregnancies, sometimes resulting in an early marriage, sometimes not. Suddenly, their dreams of a future were ended by motherhood when they were least able to handle it. Boys were not expected to get too much of an education. That was viewed as a feminist pursuit. Those that succeed were often alternately openly mocked and/or cheered.
For a good deal of his life, Vance was shuffled from place to place, sometimes with his mother and one of her five husbands, sometimes with his sister. Often, he could not tolerate the places he was forced to live in or the people with whom he lived. His mom’s way of life exposed him to chaos. His sister and his grandparents were the ones who centered him, and his sister was one of the rare hillbillies who was able to escape the clutches of her culture and its history. She was upwardly mobile as he was, eventually. When he married, he made a good choice. She has continued to stand by him, through thick and thin, enabling him to mature and succeed, control his anger and maintain hope for his future and the future of other hillbillies. J. D. Vance succeeded against all odds. Although his role models were flawed, they were positive role models. They taught him independence and gave him the confidence to try and better himself. He was able to recognize right from wrong and own up to his own behavior that was holding him back. He wanted out of that hillbilly culture of failure, but he also loved the hillbillies. They loved and supported each other, showing up to lend strength in times of need and to show respect for each other’s accomplishments.
When he joined the Marines, he matured even more and gained the courage and confidence to get out of the mold of the hillbilly. He began to understand why they were the way they were and what was needed to bring about a positive change for them so their lives wouldn’t always spiral downward. He described the hillbilly mentality as one that blamed others for their bad luck rather than recognizing their own part in what happened to them. He implied that it came from a sense of hopelessness and an inability to break out of the culture that shaped them. They were not exposed to any other way of life. Their language was crude, their honor had to be defended and their views of those that succeeded was often offensive. Yet they were also often proud of those that broke away and succeeded, although they couldn’t understand why they would want to leave their roots. Appalachia was a forgotten place. The people themselves felt forgotten. The hillbillies there had their own way of life in which they enforced their own rules and maintained their own sense of community.
Vance understood that the needs of that community were not being met. When he left and entered a prestigious university, he felt out of place; he had no real way of identifying with the way of life of most of the students. They came from a different class and background. When he went for job interviews, he was unsure of himself, didn’t know the proper etiquette. At dinner parties, he did not understand the wasteful abundance. He lived in one of Charles Murray’s bubbles, while his friends and roommates lived in another. It was not a function of race, religion, poverty or wealth. It was a function of exposure. He had no exposure to different ways of life or to different social circumstances. His education was lacking.
The book has been used, by some who read it, to explain the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. I see it as a reflection of the issues that the electorate wanted to be addressed. Many, like the hillbillies, felt unrepresented by the current President Barack Obama, and the other candidate was simply too flawed and began to appear too dishonest as certain facts were revealed. They were less concerned with the methods of revelation than the knowledge of wrongdoing that was being uncovered. She was too much a part of the political system that they no longer trusted, the system that had failed them with unfulfilled promises. They wanted to believe that something better could be achieved for them, and she was not offering them that hope. They voted for the candidate they believed would give them hope for a better, brighter future for everyone, not just specific minorities or the elite.
The book was read by the author, and I believe a professional reader might have made it sound a bit more interesting.