America has struggled with the urban-rural divide for centuries, stretching all the way back to when Manhattan’s own Alexander Hamilton fixed his sights on backwoods whiskey distilleries as a revenue source for the new Republic, prompting rebellion. But one could make the case that the divide has never consumed us as much as it does today. The political parties are aligned more than ever around blue metropolises and red spaces in between. Economic growth is now so glaringly concentrated in certain urban areas that it has reignited the age-old debate over staying vs. going. Should the young and ambitious from struggling small towns and cities be encouraged to seek their fortune in the hotbeds of dynamism and overpriced Sunday brunch, or does this only sunder family ties and hasten the collapse of the interior?
It was this dilemma that helped make J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” a runaway best seller in 2016 — the tale of a young man who’d overcome the dysfunctions of his transplanted Appalachian family to ascend to the Ivy League and Silicon Valley, with plenty of culture shocks along the way. Yet Tara Westover’s new tale of escape, “Educated,” makes Vance’s seem tame by comparison. Where Vance wrote affectingly of showing up at Ohio State and Yale Law with the limited preparation provided by his middling schools in Middletown, Ohio, Westover describes showing up in college with no schooling at all. Where Vance describes a family contending with the all-too-common burdens of substance abuse, Westover lays bare a family cursed by ideological mania and outlandish physical trauma. If Vance’s memoir offered street-heroin-grade drama, Westover’s is carfentanil, the stuff that tranquilizes elephants.