There are a lot of people in Appalachia and the Rust Belt without the prospect of a job or an optimistic feeling about the state of their future and the future of their children. But they have a vote and with that a voice. You may not agree with how they used those things in the 2016 election — specifically with regard to the way those decisions square up with trying to remedy the distressing economic conditions that plague them — but you have to respect its power. Or, at least, understand the media’s fascination with it.
Writer J.D. Vance grew up in that world, bouncing between Middletown, Ohio and Jackson, Kentucky while alternating between living with a mother who struggled with drugs, a father who once gave him up for adoption, and a stern but loving grandmother. Through his connection to them and his extended family, Vance’s life has been touched by the plagues of addiction, poor mental health, and low economic opportunity. Yet somehow he broke free of the cycle of poverty, first, by enlisting in the Marines, then by attending Ohio State and Yale Law before moving into the corporate world and joining CNN as an occasional commentator.
Vance’s story is one of unlikely personal triumph and survival, so it makes sense that he would pour it into Hillbilly Elegy, an acclaimed memoir that rode the wave of that fascination to become a #1 New York Times bestseller. And it makes sense that that book is, as of Monday, on the way to becoming a Ron Howard movie from Imagine Entertainment. But while this has all been positive for Vance and while Hillbilly Elegy shines a needed light on a poorly understood part of the United States that too many dismiss as a bastion for toothless rednecks, the book’s rise in prominence also comes with some negatives.