J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy

The Clermont County Public Library presents J.D. Vance, May 19.

J.D. Vance’s memoir is the story of a young man of rural Appalachian descent who not only was the first member of his immediate family to go to college, but he graduated from Yale Law School. Most of this book tells the story of how he managed to succeed against all odds.

It seems that being born into his family was both the worst and best possible thing that could have happened to him. In the late 1940s, his grandparents moved from rural Jackson, Kentucky, to Middletown, a steel town in Southwest Ohio, in search of a better life for their family. Due to a complex relationship with his parents, one of whom struggled with addiction most of his life, J.D. was raised primarily by his grandparents.

Neither of his grandparents graduated from high school, but strongly encouraged J.D. to apply himself to his studies. Even attending school was difficult due to the emotional and physical traumas in his life and in his parents’ lives. J.D. never knew what was in store for him when he woke up in the morning.

Even though his grandparents struggled with their own issues, they offered him as much love and support as they could. His mother was at times loving, absent and abusive. Living with his mother, J.D. grew especially skillful at navigating various father figures. Some of these men he cared about and they cared about him, but most were not healthy relationships.

J.D. states he always distinguished his address from his home. His address was where he spent most of his time with his mother and sister, wherever that might be. But his home never changed: his great-grandmother’s house, in the holler, in Jackson, Kentucky.

This excerpt explains why J.D. Vance wrote this book: That is the real story of my life, and that is why I wrote this book. I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor, and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it. I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of a life we left behind continue to chase us.

Written by Amy Vogel, Branch Supervisor.