“Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.”

J.D. Vance, JD, Yale Law School, author “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016, HarperCollins).

Almost two decades ago when I was introduced as publisher and editor of an Adams County newspaper, a local attorney – who later became a good friend – called me “Hillbilly Ryan,” after learning that I wasn’t “imported” by the corporate conglomerate that, at the time, owned his community newspaper.

When the late Roy Gabbert found out that I not only lived in Adams County – and still do, he also laughed when I passed his test of my local knowledge. (I knew both L.A. and Squirrel Town.) We did, however, have a brief feud over the existence of Neave, Ky. He doubted its existence, but with some help, proved himself incorrect (just that one time).

Growing up in southern Highland County and living in upper Adams County, the term “hillbilly” was never taken as an insult. Not by me. And not by most of my friends and coworkers. Frankly, I’ve always preferred “ridgerunner” to “hillbilly,” but either way, when the work boots fit, I was taught to wear ‘em.

This year, self-proclaimed “hillbilly,” Ohio State University alumnus and Yale Law School graduate Dr. J.D. (interesting initials for a lawyer) Vance released “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.”

Vance, who at 31, is at least a generation younger than I am, laughs at his own title, writing in the introduction: “I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that it’s a memoir, but I’m only 31 years old, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about it.”

Immediately, I appreciated this young man’s humor and humility. And I’m guessing he knows ginseng from pokeweed, to boot.

After reading his 264-page memoir over a weekend, I also appreciated the character and perseverance of the man, who by age 31, had overcome incredible odds and obstacles, the majority of which were not of his making.

Vance calls his achievements – U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Ohio State University and Yale Law School graduate, practicing attorney, etc. – “quite ordinary.”

Truth be told, they are anything but. They should be ordinary accomplishments, without question. Think about it. Isn’t the American Dream one that ensures any of us can grow up and achieve anything of our choosing through education and effort?

Tell that to a southern Ohio hillbilly from a broken home with a drug addict (yes, of course, including heroin, as we see here on a daily basis) for a mother, no father, and a gun-toting grandmother who could cuss a sailor off of a submerged submarine.

HarperCollins (https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062300546/hillbilly-elegy) describes Vance’s books as follows: “From a former Marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis – that of white working-class Americans.

“The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over 40 years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J.D.’s grandparents were ‘dirt poor and in love,’ and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.”

The family’s path toward “upward mobility” was not an easy one. Many, if not most, of the author’s relatives veered off course. A few regained what sustainable traction they could.

Yes, there are successes. But first, Vance walks the reader through the cultural norms of poverty, infighting (domestic violence), drug and alcohol abuse and low self-esteem.

In spite of everything, and through a loving grandmother “Mamaw” in the book, Vance prevailed where others did not. After graduating from Middletown High School, Vance prepared to enroll at Ohio State. As Mamaw insisted “(Education) is the only damned thing worth spending money on right now.”

Ah, the great equalizer. Education. How many times have my three children heard that in the past 27 years? (Probably as often as their parents heard it from their grandparents.)

But it’s hard work. It takes commitment – and money. Instead of enrolling at Ohio State after high school, Vance enlisted in the Marines. He served four years, including a deployment in Iraq.

Mamaw called him a “(popular hillbilly modifier used in various forms of speech that rhymes with truckin’) idiot.”

“You’re too stupid for the Marines,” Mamaw told her grandson in one breath, followed by “You’re too smart for the Marines” in the next.

Mamaw’s love for her wayward grandson – and his for her – shines through in “Hillbilly Elegy.”

The book is not without its painfully truthful political messages.

• “Government policy may be powerless to resolve other problems in our community.”

• “Any successful (government) policy program should recognize what my old high school teachers see every day: that the real problem for so many kids is what happens (or doesn’t happen) at home.”

• “Part of the problem is how state laws define the family. For families like mine – and for many black and Hispanic families – grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins play an outsize role. Children Services often cut them out of the picture, as they did in my case.”

In its review of “Hillbilly Elegy,” The Institute of Family Studies writes: “(The) memoir should be read far and wide.”

Kirkus Reviews adds: “[An] understated, engaging debut. An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.”

Many of our readers and perhaps a few of our public officials in southern Ohio can relate to Vance’s personal account of growing up in a poor, economically depressed vacuum. (Vance also notes what, at least in part, creates those vacuums. See Armco Kawasaki (AK) Steel.

Vance is brutally honest in sharing his story. He credits his extended family for his success. He also admits to distrusting those in government who might have removed him from his extended family when he most needed it.

If nothing else, “Hillbilly Elegy” is a great starter for those entering social service work in Appalachia. As one of my hillbilly teachers once told his class, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Thanks, Dr. Vance. I look forward to the second installment of your “memoirs.” And thanks to Highland County Press Designer and Editor Emeritus Lisa Wharton for sharing this book.

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.

• The book is available at: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062300546/hillbilly-elegy or https://www.amazon.com/Hillbilly-Elegy-Memoir-Family-Culture/dp/0062300547.