Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis Characters

J.D. Vance


J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance was born James Donald Bowman, the son of Donald Bowman and Bev Vance. His sister, Lindsay, was born when Bev was just nineteen. His father ran out on his mother, a nurse, and started a new family. Bev's subsequent drug abuse made her behavior erratic, and she engaged in a string of bad relationships and marriages that disrupted Vance's home life. One day, Bev threatened to crash a car with Vance in it. Following this incident, Mamaw became Vance's primary caregiver. For several years, he divided time between his mother's house and his grandmother's house. Mamaw's guidance, love, and support made it possible for Vance to graduate high school. She died while he was serving in the Marine Corps. He went on to graduate from Yale Law School, marry his beautiful wife, Usha, and start a family, escaping the poverty to which so many of his family members succumbed.

Mamaw (Bonnie Vance née Blanton)

Mamaw was born Bonnie Blanton. Her future husband, James Lee Vance (Papaw), lived only a few hundred yards away. She was just thirteen when they got pregnant and moved from Jackson to Ohio to settle in Middletown. Her first child, a girl, died within a week. Mamaw later gave birth to a son, Jimmy, then had eight miscarriages before giving birth to two healthy daughters, Bev and Lori, two years apart. It's unclear exactly what effect these miscarriages and the death of her first child had on the young Bonnie Vance. She could be a harsh woman, violent and private, and wasn't always there for her children when they were growing up—but she made up for it later. She became J.D. Vance's surrogate mother when it became clear that his mother wasn't fit to raise him. She raised and guided Vance through high school and supported his decision to enter the Marine Corps. When she died, he was devastated. He makes it clear in this book that she and Papaw saved his life.

Papaw (James "Jim" Lee Vance)

Papaw was born James Lee Vance. His father died when he was a few months old, so he was sent to live with his grandfather, Pap Taulbee. Papaw grew up a few hundred yards away from Mamaw, his future wife (then known by the name Bonnie Blanton). When he was sixteen, Mamaw got pregnant, and the young couple moved to Middletown, Ohio, where Papaw got a job at Armco. He was a nice man who turned violent when he drank, and his marriage suffered because of it. Frequent fights and acts of domestic violence made an unstable environment for the Vance children, who would struggle to overcome the trauma of their upbringing. Many years later, Papaw stopped drinking and began to make up for his past mistakes. He...

(The entire section is 1087 words.)