Wildland; The Making of America’s Fury by Evan Osnos, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2021).
Reviewed by Cynthia D. Ellis
Some of us, in the New Year, may be reflecting upon years in the recent past—especially 2016-2020—and also upon the day of January 6, 2021.
The writer Evan Osnos remembered Clarksburg, West Virginia when he thought about how the U.S. has changed. He thought about Chicago, Illinois and Greenwich, Connecticut too, in part because he has lived in those three locations.
He recalled that, when he lived and worked in China, he had struggled to describe and define American processes and institutions. The four-year term of the immediate past president made him struggle again for certainties and answers.
In his new book, Wildland; The Making of America’s Fury, Osnos chose to look again at his recollections and at the history of those three quite disparate cities. Also, he interviewed individuals and recounted, engagingly, their personal stories—their experiences and emotions— as real people in each place. Everyone is portrayed straightforwardly but with much empathy.
The author deftly explains the complicated nature of our own state and our own history. West Virginia does not get short shrift here. Many of his sources will be recognized, some especially by WVHC members. A few individuals are not included in the text, but are listed in the very detailed “Notes on Sources” section. Osnos interviewed, quoted, read, spoke with or otherwise contacted Ken Ward Jr., Chris Hamilton, Katey Lauer, Margaret Palmer, Vivian Stockman, John Unger, Evan Hansen, Judy Bonds, A.B. Brooks, John W. Davis, Eric Eyre, and many more. Some titles for chapters about the Mountain State include “Jewel of the Hills” and “I Smell Freedom”.
Now…as to the “Fury” part of the book title. Many of us are keen to know the origin and progressions of our divisions and failings within our states and our nation.
Osnos himself is an ardent student of seeing how bits and pieces form a whole. He weaves quantities of the pertinent history and research of politics, economics, sociology, and those aforementioned personal experiences, into a compelling account of why we are mad and sad…and confused.
There are a great many gripping quotes along the way, both by the author and his sources. Such as:
- “If the soul of West Virginia really was in the mountains, that soul has been carted away, one mine at a time, for the benefit of those far away.”
- [on statistics by economist William Lazonick] “In other words, for every dollar in profits, eighty-eight cents went to benefitting shareholders and senior executives instead of toward research, retraining, equipment, or wages and benefits.”
- [about coal industry lobbyist, Chris Hamilton] “Hamilton exuded patient, prosperous calm, the satisfaction of a man who did not worry about unflattering questions from an out-of-towner.”
- [John Unger, speaking on the effect of lobbyists in the WV legislature] “First they try to wine and dine you. Then they try to set you up. And then they try to threaten you.”
And, because Osnos found our national gun culture to be a persistent factor in his examinations, he devoted time to that.
A friend who is listening to the audio version of the book on my recommendation is finding it packed with woeful material. “Does he leave us with any hope?” she asked. Yes. Perhaps. But a reader may have to pick up the optimistic crumbs along the way…as we read and learn.
I find solace in the portrayal of our own mountains by Osnos, as someone new to our home. He wrote:
“For ecologists, the southern Appalachians was a singular domain—one of the most productive, diverse temperate hardwood forests on the planet. For eons, the hills had contained more species of salamanders than anywhere else, and a lush canopy that attracted neotropical migratory birds across thousands of miles to hatch their next generation.”
Some writers may grasp the importance of hills and home and salamanders…and also perceive the forces that threaten our hills…and all of us.
In “Wildlands,” Evan Osnos shows he is one of those.