Kennedy: 'Hillbilly Elegy' helps explain 2016 election

In his book "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis," J.D. Vance makes correlations between the de-industrialization of middle America and why socially conservative working-class Southerners have drifted to the Republican party in the last 40 years.
photo Mark Kennedy

If you've watched any cable news shows in the last few weeks, you might have seen a baby-faced young man from small Ohio pop up on your TV set. His name is J.D. Vance, and he's a 31-year-old graduate of Yale Law School.

Before you assume he is an Ivy League "elite" because of his Yale Law pedigree, you should know that Vance says he is the child of "hillbillies," the mountain folk of mainly Scots-Irish descent that populate much of Appalachia and parts of the industrial Midwest.

To Vance, the hillbilly label is not a put-down, but a name he uses for a proud, temperamental people who have suffered mightily due to the de-industrialization of middle America. To be fair, he says, his hillbilly relatives have also suffered from their own addictions, family breakdowns and violent impulses. It's from this swirl of working-class pride and shame that the modern American populist movement has emerged, Vance believes.

Today, Vance lives in San Francisco with his wife and two dogs and works at Silicon Valley investment firm. He admits to not knowing the right silverware to use first at a fancy dinner while he was at Yale, and he says he still has to fight the hillbilly "honor code" impulse to confront - actually, punch - anyone who even mildly insults his kin.

In his new book, "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" (264 pages, Harper, $28), Vance, a conservative U.S. Marine veteran, explores the white, working-class populism that seems to be animating the 2016 presidential election. Although he never mentions the candidacy of Donald Trump, part of the aim of the book is to explain - from an insider's point of view - why socially conservative working-class Southerners have drifted to the Republican party in the last 40 years.

In the meantime, Vance makes some keen observations about his family life - how he escaped the norms of low expectations and drug addiction that plagued so many of his Kentucky/Ohio relatives.

Vance's now-deceased grandparents - whom he called Mamaw and Papaw - were from the mountain hollows of Jackson, Ky., before they migrated to Middleton, Ohio, in the 1940s for higher-paying factory jobs. Vance and his grandparents made frequent trips back to eastern Kentucky, where some of his forebears were involved in the infamous Hatfield and McCoy feud.

Vance grew up in a household where his biological father was absent, his mother was a volatile narcotics addict who had a series of violent relationships with husbands and boyfriends, and his grandparents were decent but rough-around-the-edges mountain folk who cursed like sailors but provided what passed for stability in Vance's life.

"I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember," he writes in the introduction to his book, which has become a best-seller. "The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future - that if they're lucky they'll manage to avoid welfare; and if they're unlucky they'll die of a heroin overdose."

One level of the book is an memoir filled with Vance's stories about his rocky relationship with his mother and the husbands and boyfriends who populated his home life. On another level, it is a subtle prescription for how to raise the odds of success for poor kids without massive government spending.

Four important takeaways from "Hillbilly Elegy" are:

* When Vance struggled with math in elementary school, he assumed it was because he was stupid. His grandfather convinced him he had a knowledge problem, not an IQ problem, and they began to work on math concepts together at home. Things improved.

* Vance almost flunked out of high school because of his emotionally charged home life with his mother. Once he moved in with his grandmother and had a quiet, stress-free place to do his homework, his grades improved dramatically.

* After high school, Vance decided to delay college and volunteered for the U.S. Marines so he could benefit from the GI Bill four years later. In the Marines Corps he learned self-discipline, leadership and life skills, everything from what foods to eat to which car to buy.

* After earning an undergraduate degree at Ohio State University, Vance applied to the top law schools in America, even though some people told him it would be fruitless. At Yale, he learned that poor kids get loads of financial aid, not everybody at a top colleges is a genius, and upper-middle-class careers are built on networking as much as merit.

Can Vance's thrilling success story be duplicated in every poor American household? Certainly not. But any one of these lifelines - mentorship, family stability, military service or raised expectations - has a magic multiplying effect that could help lift a child out of poverty.

So, if you care and see an opening to help a poor kid, please lend a hand. For those of us with hillbilly roots and Scots-Irish passion, it's really the least we can do.

If you've ever called anyone Mamaw or Papaw, this means you.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfree or 423-757-6645.