After leaving college more than two decades ago, Evan Osnos landed a job on the Exponent Telegram, one of two daily papers published for the 16,400 citizens living in the West Virginia town of Clarksburg. Like many local reporters in those far-off days before the internet, he covered pretty much everything in his community, from boxing bouts and house fires to local politics and miners’ strikes. Later, working abroad in China and the Middle East, he would often check the paper’s website to keep up with events, observing from afar the drastic decline of both his own industry and the Appalachian state.
West Virginia was a Democratic stronghold when Osnos was driving around its farms, mines and schools. But factories shut in the face of foreign competition, papers closed as advertising moved online, residents left faster than in any other state and problems such as obesity and opioid addiction mounted. A growing focus on climate change worried many coal miners. The Republican strategist Karl Rove saw the state’s vulnerability, winning it for George W. Bush in 2000 as the culture wars turned rural parts of the United States red. This was the first time it had backed the party in a presidential vote for 72 years — yet by the time Donald Trump came along 16 years later, it gave him the strongest support of any state.
Wildland is the latest attempt to analyse the fissures and fury in the US exposed so starkly by Trump’s election. Osnos, a writer on the New Yorker, grapples with America’s anger by focusing on three places of significance in his own life. He uses Clarksburg to examine industrial change, predatory finance and the exploitation of the natural resources beneath the feet of poor communities; his prosperous hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut, to dissect ‘a gospel of economic liberty’ that has turbo-charged capitalism while inflaming inequality; and his ancestral home of Chicago, to probe the cruel history of segregation and racism that torments the nation.
This smart journalistic device works best in his portrait of Greenwich, where he grew up in a ‘golden triangle’ representing the highest concentration of wealth in the country.