Before J.D. Vance became one of the country's most perceptive political observers, the "Hillbilly Elegy" author was a brilliant Ohio State student learning how to think.

Before J.D. Vance became one of the country's most perceptive political observers, the "Hillbilly Elegy" author was a brilliant Ohio State student learning how to think.

"Hillbilly Elegy," one ofthiselection season's hottest political books, is a searching-and searing-memoir about growing up poor in the decaying former steel town of Middletown, Ohio. Its author, J.D. Vance, takes an affectionate but critical look at his people, Scots-Irish Appalachians who migrated from Kentucky to the Rust Belt after WWII in search of jobs that eventually evaporated.

Although the Ohio State University graduate does not support Donald Trump, he is popping up everywhere, from NPR to theNational Review, as a thoughtful explainer of why so many poor and blue-collar white folks love the Republican nominee. Heady stuff for a 31-year-old who almost flunked out of ninth grade.

After high school, Vance joined the Marines. Four years later, he enrolled at Ohio State, and the trajectory of his life changed dramatically. He graduated summa cum laude in just 23 months and, on the strength of that performance, was admitted to Yale Law School, alma mater of presidents and Supreme Court justices. Today, he is a principal at Mithril, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm led by PayPal founder Peter Thiel (coincidentally, a prominent Trump supporter).

It's a far cry from Middletown. In "Hillbilly Elegy," Vance recounts a family history that includes job loss, alcoholism, cultural isolation and considerable violence. His mother married five times and was addicted to opiates well before the current crisis kicked in. Vance credits his grandparents-especially his shotgun-toting, cuss-word-spouting, hard-loving and wildly supportive Mamaw-with raising him to believe in his own potential.

Four years in the Marines, including a tour in Iraq, taught him discipline. But his time at Ohio State taught him how to think. "I may have thought that I knew a lot about politics when I got to Ohio State," he said in a recent interview. After all, he'd served overseas. He'd been a curious teen who read Charles Murray's "Losing Ground" and William Julius Wilson's "The Truly Disadvantaged." "But I learned, one, that I didn't know as much as I thought I did, and, two, that I really needed to focus on the method of thinking that brought me to a conclusion."

"People have commented that I sometimes seem to be prouder about having been a Buckeye than about having gone to Yale Law School."

One of the people who encouraged his development was Professor Eric MacGilvray, with whom he took two classes on the history of political thought-tough courses where grad students mix with undergrads. Vance (whose last name was Hamel at the time; he later adopted his grandparents' name) was a star. "He was one of only two or three students who got an A" in one class, says MacGilvray, who wrote one of Vance's letters of recommendation for law school.

His other recommendation came from Professor Brad Nelson (now an adjunct professor at Saint Xavier University), who stays in touch with Vance. Nelson is thrilled that his former student's voice is being heard in the current political environment and, just a few weeks ago, tweeted to Vance that he should run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2020. "He's smart and articulate and part of the rational moderate side in politics," Nelson explains. "And he's got a great background story." Vance laughed off the suggestion, but Nelson says, "I still hold out hope that he'll run."