The Rise of J. D. Vance
As I write this there are 529 reviews of “Hillbilly Elegy” on Amazon’s website and many of them are better than what I have written here. Read them. So why another review? Simply put, I believe that J.D. Vance has written the most important book of the year. It is a must read.
At 32 Vance movingly tells his life story rising from his Kentucky bred family in the steel town of Middletown, Ohio to Yale Law School and to clerkships with Federal judges. He now works for Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm in San Francisco and I wish he discussed how and why he left the law for his new line of work.
Vance is largely raised by his Mamaw and Papaw, his maternal grandparents who were immersed in the tribal mentality of the Scots-Irish culture in the Kentucky hill country. His Mom, a salutatorian in her high school class, goes through husbands and drugs like water forcing Vance to continually live under the roof with unknown men and in fear of his mother’s addictions. He notes that “instability begets instability” which is not far from the Talmudic notion that sin inexorably lead to sin. Needless to say his home life was chaotic and were it not for the unconditional love his grandparents, who trust me, had their own issues, we would have never heard of him.
Vance grows up in the milieu of a declining steel town that was dominated by Armco Steel, which is now known as AK Steel and is a shadow of its former self. His grandfather worked there from the 1960s – 1990s and thus provided sustenance for his family. Now with most of those jobs gone Middletown suffers from declining public services, unemployment and opioid addiction; a pale comparison from its glory days in the 1950s.
A critical turning point in Vance’s life is when he defers his acceptance to Ohio State to join the Marine Corps. It there where he finds the discipline and stability that was so lacking at home. He goes to Iraq and ends up working in civil affairs, a far cry from being a grunt on the line. He is unfortunately silent as to how he ended up with that assignment. The Marines also gave something he never had before, a steady pay check.
On his return from the Marines he goes to Ohio State and graduates in two years, rather remarkable. Somehow he gets accepted to Yale Law School where he finds himself in culture shock. Not only for his hillbilly working class background, but also for attending a state school. State school graduates are few and far between at Yale Law School, a most unfortunate circumstance. At Yale law Professor Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua takes him under her wing and with that and his raw smarts he finds his way to the Yale Law Journal. He is silent on how he comes to befriend Amy Chua. While at Yale he meets the love of his life who he later marries.
Not so bad for a kid from Middleton, Ohio. But remember J.D. Vance is a rare exception and the people he left behind continue to suffer from the choices they made and the forces of the global economy that they have no control over and are largely forgotten by the political system where the coastal elites hold sway.
As I said at the outset Vance offers us a window into the culture of the Scots-Irish working class and the tribulations they face. It is not pretty, but as a society we are going to have to deal with it.
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