I actually met J.D. Vance some years ago at a mutual friend’s wedding, though I honestly don’t recall much about him other than that he was a generally polite and intelligent gentlemen. Still, the mutual friend speaks very highly of the man, and given my respect for my friend, my ultimate conclusion is that J.D. is a genuinely good guy, which this book did nothing to change. If anything, hearing the story of his childhood amidst the culture of rural Appalachian whites only made his current state all the more interesting.
If you read this book without any intent to gain insight into societal issues, you will still not be disappointed. Vance’s writing is compelling and he spins a well thought narrative throughout. From the fiery rhetoric of his grandmother, affectionately known as “Mawmaw” (who frequently threatens to blow peoples’ body parts off upon any hint of threat towards her grandchildren), to the loving but ultimately tragic relationship with his mother, this is a story worth hearing for that sake alone. But I think to get the best out of the book, we must take Vance’s story in the context of the times, as window into a dark and rarely explored section of our society.
Vance’s paints a picture of a culture that at times exhibits admirable qualities. The hillbillies of Kentucky are fiercely loyal, protective, and insistent on handling matters themselves. When a child molester is caught, Vance’s grandmother brags about how he was found riddled with bullet holes before the justice system ever had a chance to be invoked. Mawmaw defends her grandchildren in a way that would make most mothers look like lightweights, at one point telling her own daughter that she will shoot her in the face if any more harms comes to Vance or his sister. And Vance credits her installment of the virtues of hard work and perseverance with his ultimate success. There is much to be imitated and lauded.
At the same time, Vance talks honestly about the darker underbelly of this forgotten corner of America. Physical abuse, drugs, and rampant familial chaos are commonplace, and often excused as normal rather than called out for the harm they cause. The so-called “nuclear family” is virtually non-existent, replaced by a revolving door of boyfriends through his life, ultimately causing him to grow cold and resistant towards forming any attachments. Underlying it all is a disturbing lack of personal accountability, where all problems are caused by some ever present, insurmountable external force. Vance tells of friends who complained after being fired from numerous jobs, seemingly blind to the fact that their own tardiness and poor work habits caused their demise.
Vance is careful not to give prescriptions for solving these issues that he feels he is not qualified to offer. But he does point out that the often simplistic outside view of poverty, that all poor people are merely downtrodden and working through hard times, is no more true than its polar opposite, that all poor are merely lazy and lack motivation. Rather, the picture is much more nuanced and painted in shades of gray. Yes, it’s true that welfare can be helpful in keeping food on the table, but it has led to the erosion of communal assistance and the larger familial unit, along with encouraging those in poverty to stay there. Child protective services, no doubt an overal force for good, inadvertently encourages children not to implicate their parents in abusive behavior, lest they be wrested from the very support structures they have known all their lives (in Vance’s case, his grandparents).
Ultimately, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable (though at times depressing) and informative read. Anyone who cares about the plight of the poor, especially white rural populations, should read this book. The vivid portrait of a culture in crisis may well reshape your views and ultimately the policies and actions you advocate for. In light of the rise of Donald Trump, whose emotionally targeted rhetoric plays directly into the fears and world views of those in the rust belt and coal towns of America, perhaps we can no longer ignore the plight of this silent majority of Americans.