Based on background alone, J.D. Vance had options but he said few seemed positive.
His Middletown home’s main industry was struggling, unemployment rampant and his family fought addiction and other problems, some stemming from their Appalachian roots.
Instead he rose above his circumstances to become a U.S. Marine, an Ivy League graduate, a venture capitalist and now a bestselling author at just 33 years old.
Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” topped the New York Times Bestseller List and became one of the most talked-about books in recent years, elevating him to a position to help others learn from his life.
An estimated 1,500 people came out to hear him speak Monday night at Wittenberg University’s Pam Evans Smith Arena as part of the 35th season of the Wittenberg Series.
After considering writing the book in an abstract way to address the issues, Vance chose a more personal direction.
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“When I thought of the title, I wanted hillbilly in it,” he said. “Hillbilly culture is suffering but it is also has resilience and courage. I wanted somebody who picked up my book to be challenged so I wrote it about real people. I wanted somebody to look at me, my sister, my mamaw as people who are flawed, but also resilient and fearless.”
He read passages from the book Monday night, including about his family’s ways, his upbringing leading to awkward yet humorous situations at Yale and learning how to deal with his personal life.
In the 1940s about 90 percent of young people were expected to have better lives than their parents, Vance said, and today that number is about 50 percent, a statistic he called alarming.
He sees a fundamental problem in the next 20 years with children’s backgrounds determining their life.
“We have to figure out ways to give children a chance to chart their own course,” Vance said. “It’s not an easy question but we’ve got to do something about it.”
In closing his lecture, Vance challenged the crowd the way he did readers.
“I encourage you to try to think about how to address this problem,” he said. “We need to learn how to make more kids as lucky as I am.”
Pat Ward lived in Middletown from 1968 through 2016. She and friends Mike and Mary Lou McCormick were first in line to enter the arena.
“I know exactly what he’s describing in the book,” said Ward, who now lives in Centerville. “It’s not the Middletown I remembered, that my kids graduated from in the early ‘90s. The town is trying to make a comeback.”
Ward saw irony in that her son went to Yale and then to Ohio State, the reverse of Vance.
The McCormicks said “Hillbilly Elegy” opened their eyes to the problems just down the road from their Dayton home.
Wittenberg sophomore Megan Winters read the book for a philosophy class to investigate social justice. She also interviewed Vance for the campus newspaper, the Wittenberg Torch.
“I’m curious to see what made the book so successful,” she said.