It’s very unusual for someone from JD Vance’s background – a poor Appalachian kid from a broken home riddled with domestic abuse and violence – to end up with a law degree from Yale. Yet this memoir is the story of how Vance achieved this goal. The story is both personal and powerful, but as someone who grew up in West Virginia, I found that it often painted a complex culture with too broad a brush.
As a memoir, I thought this was a moving story. There’s something beautiful and important that comes from someone sharing their story and experiences in a long-form narrative. But this book tried to be something more than a memoir – in among the moving anecdotes from his past, the author included segments of sociological commentary and generalized explanation of the culture he grew up in. These sections weakened the story. The writing in them was weaker, and I wondered if an editor requested that the author add them in after the fact. In addition, the author seemed too close to his own traumatic experiences to have a clear and objective grasp of the culture as a whole. He commented a number of times throughout the book that he felt somewhat like he was betraying his culture by going to Yale and entering into the privileged world that came with it. This struggle with the transition between the two worlds and the tension that he (obviously) still feels about his past seem to interfere his attempt at making objective sociological commentary. He tells his story with heart and conviction, and it’s a story that we need to hear. But the attempt to expand his story into generalities about the culture detracted from the story as a whole.
I wish this book had come out at a different time. It’s quite a good memoir – a man telling the story of his growing up years, in a difficult home. But this book came out just before the U.S. election of 2016, at a time when a huge group of people were trying to figure out the culture of Appalachia and the American south, and trying to find out “who the Trump voter really is.” A lot of people latched on to this book as “the answer” to what Appalachian culture is all about. This is problematic. The story is moving and important, but it’s one person’s story. We can’t extrapolate out and say that we finally understand an entire culture based on one personal account.
Another problematic aspect to this book is the fact that there’s no in-depth discussion of how to define success. The author gives a very specific example of his own success – “getting out,” going to Yale, having a financially lucrative career. But he glosses over another success story in the book: his sister’s. While they both grew up in the same broken and very dysfunctional home, his sister married a solid, kind man, and seems to have formed a happy and stable life, even while she stayed in a working class rural environment. Sometimes success means “escaping.” But sometimes it doesn’t. To me, breaking the cycle of abuse and instability is the biggest success in both of their stories.
This book struck a very personal chord for me, because I grew up in West Virginia. I wasn’t born there (a fact which makes a difference to those who were), but I lived there from age five through my high school graduation. It was my home. A lot of the things the author describes in his memoir were things that I observed around me while I was growing up – the fierce tribal pride and family loyalty, the widespread poverty and difficulty in adjusting to and finding jobs in a new global economy, the tension and contrast between those who work tooth and nail to make it on their own and those who depend on the welfare system. But while many aspects of this story were very familiar to me, I resisted the inference that the author’s personal story was representative of the culture as a whole. There are plenty of families in rural Appalachia that aren’t riddled with domestic abuse. There are plenty of stable, happy families who love each other and love the place they live. There are plenty of people living in Appalachia who love it there and want to continue living there – not everyone views it as a place to escape from. There are problems in Appalachia, to be sure, and the collapse of the coal mining industry has certainly worsened them, but I found it to be a wonderful place to grow up.