J.D. Vance was born and raised in Middletown, Ohio – firmly within the Rust Belt of America. Growing up poor and below the poverty line, Vance tells of the turbulent years of his youth and how he was able to make something of himself despite his believed trajectory. Vance also explores the reasons behind the attitudes of working-class white Americans in middle America and why it is so difficult to change their perceptions of the world.
The memoir begins with a history of his Grandmother and Grandfather (referred to as Mamaw and Papaw) and the struggles they endured while raising a family from a very young age. From there, he dives into his mother’s childhood and his own formative years while focusing on the important figures in his life and the examples they set for him that would ultimately lead to the decisions that would change his perceived destiny. Without those people, the heartbreak and strife he experienced would have likely been his downfall.
I’m about the same age as JD and while his childhood was infinitely worse than mine, I did find common ground. We both grew up in homes that lacked a certain level of stability housing less than ideal (putting it lightly) male role models. We both shared strained relationships with our mothers and his lack of self-esteem and confidence rang true for me as well. I think these reasons helped to endear Vance to me and lifted my enjoyment of the book beyond what I would expect of a coming-of-age memoir written by a wealthy registered republican.
That said, I really struggled with his story at times in the last quarter or so. Vance’s journey to Yale Law School coupled with his time in the Marines, while both having compelling moments, had long stretches where I found the text hopelessly dull. Of course, this is comparing the latter stages of his life to his completely insane childhood where events came at you quicker than a hiccup. I cannot remember the number of times I had to jump back one to two minutes to re-listen as I would find myself letting the information wash over me while my brain decided to wander off without my permission.
Your enjoyment of this book will probably be determined by how much patience you have for working-class white Americans perceiving themselves to be victims in Donald Trump’s America. Vance does not have this attitude about himself, but he does provide a source for this attitude and why heavily campaigning on it directly led to Trump winning the 2016 election. It is an interesting look at the blue-collar economic collapse in Middle America and the people it left behind.