In a ramshackle house in Middletown, Ohio, a rust belt town in decline, a young boy cowers in the arms of his older sister. A drunken brawl rages between their mother and yet another step-father. Dishes crash. Sobs waft. The girl considers calling their grandfather for help on the secret phone line he’s installed in their toy box for times like these.
This is the violent world of young J.D. Vance. Thirty years later he would tell about it in his 2017 best seller, “Hillbilly Elegy.” It’s about the demise of America’s steel industry. But more importantly, the collapse of the white working class who fueled it.
In the late 1940s, Vance’s Scots-Irish grandparents migrate 200 miles north to Middletown from Jackson, Kentucky, an Appalachian coal town.
Better-paying jobs in the steel mills lift these hillbilly transplants from poverty to middle class. It lasts three decades, until demand for domestic steel dissolves.
In 1989, Vance turns five and Middletown’s local steel company sells out to the Japanese. Layoffs are rampant. Middletown is hemorrhaging.
Hillbillies, like Vance’s family, are long on grit, but short on education. There are no longer jobs for their kind. Alcoholism and drug addiction fill the vacuum. Vance’s mother, traumatized by her hard-drinking father, succumbs to both.
Vance’s parents divorce. His mother sinks further into addiction. Domestic turmoil defines his life. Three abusive step-fathers, three paramours, and a half-dozen houses later, his grandmother, “Mawmaw,” takes him in.
Hers was his first safe, stable home. “What I remember most of all,” he writes, “is that (in Mawmaw’s home) I was happy. I no longer feared the school bell at the end of the day, I knew where I’d be living the next month … ”
Against all odds, young J.D. completes high school and a four-year hitch in the Marine Corps. Upon his return, he graduates with honors from Ohio State University, then Yale Law School, both courtesy of tenacity, the GI Bill and low-income grants.
Vance admits in his book that, despite his escape to the professional world, he remains a hillbilly at heart. Like his ancestors, he can be combative and loyal to a fault, a legacy he reveres but struggles to rein. His choice of the word “elegy” in the title sums it up: a sad poem, usually written to praise and express sorrow for someone who is dead.
Vance believes that feelings of hopelessness in working class steelworkers spawn domestic violence. To break the cycle, he says, “ … we must stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”
He’s right. It takes character to overcome obstacles. And it starts in the home. J.D. Vance and his Mawmaw proved no hurdle is too high.
Remember, if we provide our children with sane and sensible refuge, the calls we get from our grandchildren will never be from a toy box phone.
Malcolm D. Gibson
April 16, 2017