In a ramshackle house in Middletown, Ohio, a rust belt city decimated by the decline of the steel industry, 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 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, who, thirty years later, will go on to author the 2017 best seller, Hillbilly Elegy. A commentary on the terrible toll the demise of America’s the coal and steel industries takes on the real people left behind.
Vance’s story begins in the late 1940’s when his Scots-Irish grandparents migrate two hundred miles north to Middletown from Jackson, Kentucky, an Appalachian coal town. Better paying jobs in the industrial mid-west lift these hillbilly transplants from near poverty to the white middle class. It lasts for three decades, until heavy industry begins to falter.
By the 1995, when Vance is eleven years old, Middletown’s local steel company has been sold off to the Japanese. Coal industry jobs in Kentucky have plunged by forty percent. Layoffs are rampant. Middletown and Jackson become shadows of their former selves. Moral plummets.
Hillbillies, like Vance’s family, are long on grit, but short on education. There are no longer jobs for their kind. As the economic decline accelerates, alcoholism and drug addiction set in. Vance’s mother, traumatized by growing up with her hard-drinking father, succumbs to both.
While a toddler, Vance’s parents divorce and his father gives him up for adoption. Three step-fathers, three paramours, and a half dozen houses later, he moves in with his grandmother in his sophomore year.
He has begun to show the effects of long term domestic trauma. Poor grades, truancy, aggressive behavior. Like most other children of a workforce without jobs, the drugs and violence around him have taken their toll.
Against all odds, with his grandmother’s help, young J.D. completes high school and does 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 the GI Bill and low income grants.
Despite his ascendency, Vance now remains, by his own admission, a hillbilly at heart. Tough and loyal to a fault, he has survived a legacy which he both loathes and respects. The word “elegy” in his book’s title sums it up: a sad poem, usually written to praise and express sorrow for someone who is dead.
He believes that the near death of his generation, and the hillbilly culture, has not been caused solely by globalization, or failed government programs. We cannot, he says, blame all pitfalls in life on outside forces. We can and must, however, provide our children the help, stability, and support to survive these challenges when they come along.
Should a call come from the toy box, we must be there to answer.