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In 1986, the year before he died, Andy Warhol produced Cowboys and Indians, a portfolio of prints commemorating the American West. Featuring almost-psychedelic silkscreens of Theodore Roosevelt, George Custer, Geronimo and others, the series puts a historical spin on Warhol’s trademark celebrity fixation.

Warhol skewers some heroic, heteronormative myths, offering a more satiric, queer interpretation. But he fails to fully address the mythological frontier’s racism—or his own appropriation of Indigenous iconography.

A recent exhibition and book, Warhol and the West (University of California Press), revisits Cowboys and Indians, exploring Warhol’s lifelong fascination with the region. The book also suggests that Warhol’s entire Western oeuvre—three decades of films and prints—is an exercise in paradox: Even as he enshrines his subjects’ nobility, he can’t resist fluorescing them into campy icons. It’s an approach that perhaps only an outsider—a gay artist from New York City—would attempt. The result challenges typical Hollywood notions of masculinity and the West, even as its naive romanticism furthers the exploitation of Indigenous peoples.

Essays in the book’s first section trace Warhol’s interest in Western themes—the artist wore cowboy boots almost every day—while grappling with his appropriation of Indigenous art. The second half reproduces Warhol’s Western work, along with brief responses by artists, academics and curators. The result is a kaleidoscope of thoughtful, erudite and sometimes-personal commentary about an artist whom I thought had long ago exhausted fresh takes.

Warhol’s appropriation of Indigenous iconography comes under particular scrutiny. A senior curator at Oklahoma City’s American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, heather ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw), situates the artist in a long tradition of white men who misrepresent, exploit or otherwise caricaturize Indigenous peoples. Photographer Edward S. Curtis, whose 20-volume The North American Indian was published between 1907 and 1930, is a prime example. Warhol’s Western prints, ahtone observes, cater to “a society that wants a credible history that it can now own, even at the expense of those whose bodies are now fodder for visual commodification.”

Cowboys and Indians was commissioned by a New York art dealer and an investment banker, and its commercial roots lend it an uncomfortable dissonance. Gloria Lomahaftewa, a project manager for the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, and Daryn A. Melvin, who works for the vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe, note that Warhol’s vivid, almost-electric prints of katsina dolls fit into a pattern of sacred tribal objects desecrated by non-Native artists, who paint the dolls “with bright colors, effectively erasing and/or distorting the figure’s meaningful and sacred origin.” Today, the Hopi Tribe asks that any institution planning to manufacture or display materials related to Hopi culture consult with it first. In 1986, though, Warhol depicted katsina dolls without tribal oversight, selling the sprint as part of a larger portfolio that retailed for $15,000.

But Faith Brower, a curator at Tacoma Art Museum, notes that Warhol offers a template by which one can critique colonialism, mass culture, sentimentalizing nostalgia, racism and injustice. In one of the book’s most intriguing essays, she surveys the influence that Warhol and Pop Art have had on Native and non-Native artists, including Duke Beardsley, Frank Buffalo Hyde, Maura Allen, Billy Schenck and Alison Marks.

If Warhol and the West offers an overdue critique of Warhol’s appropriation and commodification of Indigenous cultures, it’s less rigorous in connecting his sexuality to his subversion of macho Western tropes. The 1963 print “Triple Elvis,” for example, has an obvious homoerotic subtext: Elvis stands with legs apart, pointing a gun, the ultimate phallic symbol, at the viewer, his triplicate legs intertwined, and his free hand suspended in an almost-masturbatory gesture. Likewise, in Warhol’s rendering of John Wayne, the openly homophobic actor cradles a gun cocked toward his mouth.

Warhol’s films, also discussed, are perhaps more unabashed in their queering of Western clichés. In Lonesome Cowboys, an ultra-low-budget 1968 film, a gang invades a frontier town on horseback, wreaks havoc, and then splinters apart. Shot on location in Tucson, the movie features Warhol superstars Viva, Taylor Mead and Joe Dallesandro gamely improvising anachronistic dialogue. (At one point, two cowboys resolve to quit hell-raising and start a family before World War I.) The movie ends with two desperadoes riding off into the sunset, bound for California, where they plan to become surfers. “The production of Lonesome Cowboys allowed Warhol and his cast to play out a fantastical idea of life on the Western frontier unfettered by social constraints—to be heroes in a world in which they were decidedly outcasts,” the critic Chelsea Weathers writes in Warhol and the West, implying that Warhol’s own queerness underlies his revisionism.

“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there, but they can’t see,” Warhol once wrote. Warhol and the West suggests that the artist’s rendition of history was unabashedly queer—and, despite its colorfulness, unmistakably white.

Jeremy Lybarger is the features editor at the Poetry Foundation. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Warhol and the West

By Various Authors

University of California Press

140 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

My mother grew up on a tiny farm on the outskirts of Bakersfield in the 1960s. When I was little, she told me stories about the Basques who sheared their sheep, and a childhood spent wandering among the family’s fruit and nut trees.

It was a bucolic picture of California’s Central Valley—the type of picturesque image that journalist Mark Arax, in his sprawling new treatise on water and agriculture in the Golden State, is quick to undermine: Today, small family farms are vanishing; agribusiness is expanding; the earth is sinking; aquifers are emptying; rivers run dry; and laborers toil for a pittance.

In The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, Arax roams the state and plumbs its history to reveal the causes and consequences of the current water crisis. He reports on farms and the pipelines that supply them, interviewing fieldworkers and billionaire landowners, and interjecting tales of his family’s own agricultural forays and failures. His scope is impressive: He describes the cultivation of specialized grapes with the same clarity and finesse with which he unravels the state’s great mass of dams, aqueducts and complicated water rights. The result clearly depicts “the grandest hydraulic engineering feat known to man”—“one of the most dramatic alterations of the earth’s surface in human history.”

This engineering feat is at the center of the book’s most-urgent questions. Despite recurring drought and a rapidly changing climate, the Central Valley produces another bountiful harvest each year. “How much was magic? How much was plunder?” Arax asks. The region accounts for more than a third of the country’s vegetables, and over two-thirds of our nuts and fruit; it boasts a million acres of almonds alone. Stewart Resnick of The Wonderful Company, the biggest grower of them all, shuttles 400,000 acre-feet of water per year to his 15 million trees, mostly growing almonds, pistachios, pomegranates and citrus. (The city of Los Angeles, for perspective, consumes 587,000 acre-feet annually.)

The bounty is largely plunder, of course, not magic. The plunder is as embedded in the state as the dream that made it possible. Arax traces this history from the Spanish colonial subjugation of Indigenous peoples to the conquering of the territory by U.S. forces, to the excavation of mountains for gold, to Los Angeles’ theft of the Owens River, to urban sprawl and suburban tracts—an unending cycle of supply and demand. Restraint was never an option. “No society in history has gone to greater lengths to deny its fundamental nature than California,” he writes. “California, for a century and two-thirds now, keeps forgetting its arrangement with drought and flood.”

Time and again in The Dreamt Land, we watch farmers ignore the certainty of drought, planting “to the absolute extreme of what the water could serve.” When farms in Tulare and Kern counties exhausted their local rivers, they drained the San Joaquin, which also proved insufficient. Such excessive planting and pumping, paired with the natural pendulum of flood and drought, perpetuated the fast disappearance of water. This “gave rise to both the need and ambition of a system”: the immense Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, which mine Northern California’s rivers and redistribute water to the Central Valley and the urban centers of the south.

Both projects were largely constructed between the late 1930s and early 1970s, designed to allow farmers to grow in both wet and dry years. But “the System,” as Arax methodically shows, was based on the flawed, idealized theory of an average year of weather; it presumed to deliver a constant, predictable supply, as if wild variations in precipitation did not exist or could be evened out by mathematics.

In reality, “the actual water captured and delivered (by the System) fell short of the normal or far beyond it.” When it fell short, which happened frequently, farmers were forced to confront the nearly 2 million-acre-foot difference. When the floods arrived, they again forgot the dry years and sowed new fields. Cities did the same—and boomed. Then true drought set in, as it always does, and everyone scrambled to survive: The cities grabbed from the System; the government supplied subsidies to farmers; some farmers dug new wells and watched the ground sink beneath them; still others fallowed their land and sold their water to the highest bidder. As climate change accelerates, the cycles of drought and flood and the severity of their effects have only been exacerbated.

These are the stories of a people who refuse to face the limits of their landscape, whose attempts at control end up dirtying their own beds, and whose production, for now, is remarkably inflated: “Highest mountain, lowest desert, longest coast, most epic valley—(California) made for infinite invention.”

This multitude is both the source of the state’s bounty and the substance of its myth. The California Dream is the American Dream with a dash of rouge and citrus—just as tantalizing, just as exclusive.

Sean McCoy is a writer from Arizona and the editor of Contra Viento, a journal for art and literature from rangelands. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California

By Mark Arax


576 pages, $30

Published in Literature

In her brilliant fourth novel, The Other Americans, Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami paints an unsparing portrait of the American West, deliberately rejecting the familiar frontier stories of redemptive violence or restorative wilderness.

Instead, Lalami’s West is a place where outcasts and immigrants struggle to co-exist in a desert that sprawls between a national park and a military base—yes, we’re talking about our local high desert. Simultaneously lyrical and accessible, The Other Americans is both an engaging whodunit and a profound meditation on identity and community in the contemporary American West.

The Arabic word for Morocco, “Al-Maghrib,” also means “the West.” American literary expatriates such as Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, who made Morocco their home during the middle of the 20th century, drew mythological connections between Al-Maghrib and the American West, imagining Morocco as a new frontier on which they were countercultural pioneers. Lalami has long been a trenchant critic of the outsized influence these writers have on the American understanding of Morocco. Lalami’s latest novel, a National Book Award finalist, turns the tables on their frontier rhetoric through the story of a Moroccan immigrant family living a few miles down the road from Pioneertown.

The Other Americans is set into motion when Moroccan immigrant Driss Guerraoui dies in a suspicious hit-and-run accident while crossing the highway outside the diner he owns in the town of Yucca Valley. The novel pieces together Driss’ life with interwoven accounts from his family and the diverse cast of desert-dwellers drawn into the investigation of his death.

There are elements of Driss’ story that resonate with a well-known American narrative: An immigrant flees political oppression and arrives in a Western town where he builds his own business, raises a family and comes to identify with his new nation and the land itself. The Other Americans notes that Driss buys his diner from “a pair of homesteaders” who built it on “land that belonged to Chemehuevi Indians.” Otherwise, like so many Westerns, the novel is problematically empty of indigenous history or characters. Driss’ status as an immigrant frontiersman is reinforced by his name, which references Moulay Idriss, the venerated descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, who travelled West from the Arabian Peninsula to found the Kingdom of Morocco.

In his later years, Driss buys a cabin amid the Joshua trees, where he enjoys the solitude of the desert like a Maghrebi Edward Abbey—or so it seems.

As the investigation into the accident unfolds, the Guerraoui family’s hopeful frontier story begins to unravel. The driving force behind the investigation and the narrative is Driss’ daughter Nora, a promising jazz composer struggling with the austere realities of having a creative career in the United States. She returns to Yucca Valley from San Francisco hoping to find out who was responsible for her father’s death, while also questioning where her own story went wrong. Instead of clear answers, she finds the cluttered assemblage of love and loss, adultery and addiction that is revealed when most family histories are probed closely enough.

Throbbing below the dissonant melodies of the Guerraoui family’s story is a bass line of fear engendered by the militarism and virulent anti-Arab racism that hit a peak after Sept. 11, 2001. From ethnic slurs in the school hallway to an unexplained arson at the family’s doughnut shop, the racism associated with the ongoing “war on terror” constantly threatens to overwhelm the Guerraouis’ acceptance into American life. Their very name resonates with the French la guerre—the war.

This tension between the family’s identity as American and its labeling as the “other” in the war on terrorism heightens when Nora reconnects with an old flame from high school, Jeremy, a sheriff’s deputy recently home from a military tour in Iraq. Traumatized by their experiences on either side of the racial “frontier,” Jeremy and Nora bond while confronting the truths that might bring some meaning to Driss’ death—and life—even as they battle a community eager to dismiss the hit-and-run as an accident.

In its poetic meditation on traumas at once personal and political, Lalami’s novel calls to mind the work of another celebrated California writer, Joan Didion. In Didion's first novel, Run, River, protagonist Lily McClellan concludes a meditation on her pioneer family’s violent history by declaring that “it had above all a history of accidents: of moving on and of accidents.”

Lalami shares Didion’s unsentimental perspective on the West, and the startling conclusion of The Other Americans refuses both self-righteous moralizing and melodramatic redemption. While Didion emphasizes the contingency of Western history, Lalami forces readers to confront the fact that the violence of that history is anything but an accident.

Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of U.S. culture and transnational settler colonialism. He lives in Phoenix, where he teaches at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Other Americans

By Laila Lalami


320 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature

In The Grave on the Wall, poet and essayist Brandon Shimoda focuses on what remains after great loss. In this work of lyric nonfiction, he writes about his grandfather, Midori Shimoda, who died after years of memory loss from Alzheimer’s disease.

Midori was one of more than 110,000 American residents, most of them U.S. citizens, who were forcibly incarcerated by the federal government during World War II because of their Japanese ancestry. Shimoda travels to places from Midori’s life to tell not just the story of his grandfather, but also of himself and the racist history that, then as now, has damaged families and excluded many from citizenship. Along the way, he sees much that has been irredeemably ground to dust. His book is a memorable and memorializing work that depicts the pain of trying to recover what can never be regained, from lost lives to a lost sense of home that transcends generations.

The Grave on the Wall bends and blends myth, research, travelogue, elegy and memoir. The chapters generally follow Shimoda’s journey back through his grandfather’s life, but his investigations also explore other elements of the family’s history and even include leaps across mythological and geologic time. Many would call this structure fragmented; I would label it smartly granular.

Each piece in this work is intimate and delicate, yet the piling up of those pieces can never re-create or resolve what has been lost, just as eroded sand cannot be returned to the original rocks from which it was worn. The stories Shimoda tells, the artifacts he finds, the artwork he explains, and even the land itself are what is left of his family’s history, and the larger American history he is attempting to explain. These remains function as ritual sites for remembrance. Repeated images of sand, disintegrating land and ashes—like the ashes of his grandfather, which his family scatters in California’s Death Valley, or like the ashes of Nagasaki after the atomic bomb—all reinforce this theme.

Granularity resurfaces in the low-resolution family snapshots and artistic photos taken by Midori, a professional photographer. They remind viewers of the pixels that are missing: Viewers can never see the full picture, because the art objects, along with Shimoda’s descriptions, are only attempts to capture unspeaking subjects, whether Shimoda’s grandfather, great-grandmother, or a mythic figure. The lack of direct access to these subjects reveals that what existed before is gone forever. Even so, Shimoda doesn’t want to forget the tales in these photos, because they evoke his own family, America’s devastating use of nuclear weapons, and the country’s use of citizenship laws to target people of color, which continues today.

For Shimoda’s grandfather, Midori, this complex relationship with his adopted country began as soon as he immigrated to the United States from Japan as a child in 1919. Like other Japanese immigrants at the time, Midori was considered a legal “alien” and “ineligible for citizenship” because of his country of origin. Over the course of his life, he moved throughout the West both by choice and by force; he was arrested during World War II, for example, ostensibly because he owned a camera—a crime at the time for those of Japanese ancestry. Such arrests were part of the removal of Japanese immigrants and their American children from the West Coast. During the war, Midori’s status shifted to “enemy alien.” Incarcerated in Salt Lake City and in Fort Missoula, Mont., Midori had to renounce any connection to Japan to avoid deportation, leaving him stateless. He was not granted American citizenship until after the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952.

To Shimoda, incarceration is an ongoing experience for the generations who follow. He joins Japanese-American writers such as Julie Otsuka, Heather Nagami, David Mura and Karen Tei Yamashita, who did not experience the camps, but still are grappling with their long-term ramifications. These descendants are now in search of “re-enacting and reclaiming and rehabilitating” those earlier experiences in what Shimoda sees as “the ruins,” the literal remains of various sites where new generations must find ways to grow out of the ravaged past.

In one section, which feels like a study of the 2011 earthquakes and tsunami as well as something from a myth, Shimoda describes a woman in Tohoku, Japan, who “planted spinach in the ruins of her house.” From Japan to the United States and across a century, Shimoda explores these incongruous yet fertile places for remembrance, knowing that we all continue to reside in the midst of destruction.

Abby Manzella is a writer and critic who lives in Columbia, Mo. Her scholarly book Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements was named a Choice Review Outstanding Academic Title. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Grave on the Wall

By Brandon Shimoda

City Lights

222 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature

The American West is a region that has been conscripted into the service of the nation’s frontier myth. Nowhere are the absurdities and tragedies of this myth more apparent than in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. From the hackneyed re-enactments of Tombstone’s Gunfight at the OK Corral to the real-life vigilantes and outlaws who haunt the deserts along the borderline, the violence of the frontier is alive in the borderlands in a way that feels simultaneously anachronistic and immediate.

New York University historian Greg Grandin explores this strange affinity between the frontier stockade and the border wall in The End of The Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. The scope of Grandin’s frontier history extends far beyond the borderlands or even the American West, ranging from the genocidal Indian wars of the 13 colonies to recent interventions into the affairs of the Central American nations that former President Ronald Reagan was fond of referring to as our “southern frontier.”

Such violent expansion of territory and influence has long provided an outlet, Grandin argues, for fundamental tensions within the American body politic. Whether it’s the class antagonism that Andrew Jackson sought to appease by brutally opening new territory for settlement, or the sectional divisions that were sutured in the unifying white nationalism of the Spanish-American War, The End of the Myth suggests that expansionism served as a “safety valve,” releasing pressures produced by our most-profound social contradictions.

Grandin borrows this concept of the frontier from the best-known frontier historian of all: Frederick Jackson Turner. In his controversial 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”—notorious today for celebrating settler colonialism and downplaying its violence—Turner imagined the frontier as a mobile site where the class tensions of the Old World were supplanted by an epic struggle between civilization and savagery. For Turner, the story of this struggle was the narrative of U.S. history, the source of the democratic and egalitarian nature of the “American character.” His essay ends on a note of marked anxiety as he ponders the exhaustion of “free land” in the West: “At the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”

Grandin comes to a different conclusion: In the final chapter of his 21st century frontier thesis, provocatively titled “The Significance of the Wall in U.S. History,” he argues that it was not the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny, but rather the election of Donald Trump, that marked the end of an era. After decades of foreign policy failures, from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq, “the frontier is closed, the safety valve shut,” Grandin warns. “After centuries of fleeing forward across the blood meridian, all the things that expansion was supposed to preserve have been destroyed, and all the things it was meant to destroy have been preserved.”

Turner’s myth of an egalitarian frontier democracy always obscured the bloody reality of history. Grandin, however, argues that Turner’s story has met its definitive and inevitable end in the white-supremacist ideology made manifest in Trump’s obsession—the border wall. The U.S.-Mexico border has become “the negation of the frontier,” a “repository of the racism and brutality” that Turner’s notion of history and its representation of the “savage” on the other side of the frontier had sought to project beyond the nation.

By echoing Turner’s anxieties about what, in his later years, he called “a nation thrown back upon itself,” Grandin offers a stirring condemnation of Trump. Through his ambivalent embrace of Turner, however, Grandin also risks inadvertently revisiting some of Turner’s blind spots. Grandin takes “the mind of America” as his subject, but the voices that dominate his book are those of white Americans—the intended beneficiaries of frontier expansion. In an especially remarkable omission, the voices of Indigenous scholars—people who have a lot to say about frontier conquest and its consequences—are almost entirely absent.

Many Indigenous intellectuals are skeptical of claims that Trump and the ideology he represents are exceptional or new. As Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim TallBear put it in the week following Trump’s election, “This week I do not grieve anew. … As a Dakota, we have struggled post-apocalyptically for a century and a half.” Grandin, on the other hand, argues that the emergency engendered by the election of Trump marks an epochal shift that will finally force Americans to face the choice that frontier expansion once allowed us to evade: “barbarism or socialism.”

Grandin may be “a rash prophet” (to borrow a phrase from Turner) for arguing that our contemporary crisis signals “the end of the myth” that has for so long sanctioned the United States’ expansive violence. Nonetheless, Grandin paints a vivid picture of the troubling continuities between frontier expansion, border vigilantism and military action abroad. By illuminating the litany of emergencies that is the history of U.S. empire, Grandin’s history does vital work in the ongoing struggle to reject the myth of the democratic frontier.

Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of U.S. culture and transnational settler colonialism. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

By Greg Grandin

Metropolitan Books

384 pages, $30

Published in Literature

Rowdy Burns doesn’t look like much when he first meets ranch hand Wendell Newman.

He’s a silent slip of a boy, 7 years old, hollow-cheeked and hollowed-out by trauma—a mother struggling with drugs, and days spent alone in an empty apartment. He’s “the tiniest little thing for miles,” Wendell thinks. And yet Rowdy becomes the gravitational force that draws together two families long torn apart by rural class and political divisions that ultimately erupted in murder.

Joe Wilkins’ gripping debut novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, opens soon after Rowdy’s arrival in Wendell’s care, in a trailer in a hardscrabble corner of eastern Montana, during the first year of the Obama administration. Wendell is just 24 himself, a bookish former high school basketball star who now works for the wealthy rancher leasing his family’s land, struggling to pay down back taxes and his dead mother’s medical bills. Rowdy is the child of Wendell’s cousin; he drums his fingers on his cheeks and is prone to fits. But the two, sundered from their closest relatives, begin to fuse into a new little family.

Wendell teaches Rowdy how to set and run a trapline, lets him ride along in the grain truck, and enlists his help with calves. Wendell begins to find in himself the father figure absent from his own life; Rowdy, though he struggles in school, calms down and starts to open in the embrace of Wendell’s easy faith in his competence and potential. Sometimes, he even finds his voice.

Wendell and Rowdy’s unfolding relationship is the central thread of three interwoven storylines set against the backdrop of the Bull Mountains, the landscape where Wilkins grew up and the subject of his equally gorgeous memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers. The second follows Gillian Houlton and her teenage daughter, Maddy. An idealistic school administrator, Gillian goes out of her way to keep local kids from getting derailed by desperate circumstances. She winds up finding her way back to teaching, her true calling, when she takes Rowdy on as a special-ed student. After meeting Wendell in a local dive bar, Maddy embraces Rowdy’s cause, bringing him books and a winter coat—and growing closer to Wendell. She has no idea that the two of them share a dark past. The third storyline reveals that darkness, piece by piece, through a series of notebook entries written years before by Wendell’s father, Verl.

Wrestling with the loss of his public-land grazing leases and the subsequent loss of his cattle, Verl shot a wolf and buried it in a ravine. He blamed the federal government for the predator’s return; to him, it exemplified the forces that had stolen everything from him, the land and wealth earned by his birthright and the work of his hands. So when the game warden confronted him, Verl shot him, too, then abandoned his family and vanished into the wilderness, into “his” Bull Mountains, forever, chronicling his flight as he went.

The game warden was Verl’s friend, Maddy’s father and Gillian’s husband. In a heartbeat, Wendell, Maddy and Gillian had lost the most important men in their lives to a myth of masculine self-sufficiency and settler entitlement that, in Wilkins’ telling, runs through the veins of their homeland like a drug.

As their lives twine together around Rowdy, that violent mythos threatens to tear them apart yet again: The first legal wolf hunt in Montana is coming up, and a right-wing militia movement that sees Verl as a hero plans to use the event to launch the opening salvo of their revolution. When they turn to Wendell as Verl’s emissary, Wendell must decide what kind of man he wants to be, and what kind of world he wants for Rowdy.

The land itself—almost a living character in the book, rendered both beautiful and ominous in Wilkins’ poetic prose—leads him to his final answer, and to the book’s spellbinding conclusion. This is big, dry country that defies irrigation; turns farmhouses into peeling, yawing shacks; and pushes families like Wendell’s own out of business and into poverty.

“It wasn’t the EPA or the BLM making it all of a sudden hard,” Wendell realizes. “It had always been hard. That’s why the wolves were coming back. They were built for it. They didn’t worry about what was owed to them. They lived how the land demanded.”

Even Verl arrived at this realization before he melted into mystery and dust among the dry needles of the mountains’ dry forest. In one of the notebook’s last entries, he acknowledged as much, writing and then crossing out, as if he couldn’t live with the conclusion: “If I were to pick up a rock or stone out here and call it mine, it would only fall back down when I die.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News. Sarah Gilman writes and draws from Portland, Ore.

Fall Back Down When I Die

By Joe Wilkins

Little, Brown and Company

256 pages, $27

Published in Literature

Many of the young female protagonists in Sabrina and Corina, Denver author Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s poised, rich debut story collection, grow up in fractured families—in which one parent leaves, dies or simply fails at the job. But these families’ roots run generations deep in Colorado, and a grandmother often brings stability through her staunch love and practical caregiving, offering simple remedies derived from a Mexican-American or indigenous heritage: garlic for warts, potato slices on temples for headaches, herbs instead of brain-addling fentanyl for the pain of cancer patients, and for “a cold or a broken heart … a warm cup of atole made only with blue corn.”

Although these women demonstrate abundant love, they are far from stereotypical or saccharine characters. One, armed with a gun, defends her home from an intruder, and all of them tell it like is. The grandmother in the title story says her granddaughter’s absentee father “was a nobody—some white guy with a name like a stuffy nose, Stuart or Randall.”

Fajardo-Anstine’s protagonists might struggle to pass their history exams or revert, for a night, to their youthful graffiti days, but they still feel grounded. They may not know exactly where they’re going, but they know who they are and where they belong as surely as they know the traditions that will mark each rite of passage. In the title story, Corina explains, “I had experienced enough Cordova deaths to know one pot was filled with green chili, another with pintos, and the last one with menudo. Deaths, weddings, birthdays—the menu was always the same.” They watch with a kind of astonishment as Denver gentrifies, and neighborhoods known for decades as the Westside or the Northside become the “Highlands.”

“Since the newcomers had started moving to Denver,” Fajardo-Anstine writes, “they’d changed the neighborhood names to fit their needs, to sound less dangerous, maybe less territorial.”

In many of these expertly crafted stories, there’s one woman whose life, or untimely death, serves as a cautionary tale. In the title story, Sabrina is strangled, and her cousin and former best friend, Corina, contemplates her short life and tragic death. Corina wonders why she escaped Sabrina’s fate; was it because she was not as pretty and therefore perhaps not as self-destructive or attractive to dangerous men? “These pretty girls,” the funeral director tells Corina, “they get themselves into such ugly situations.” Corina is determined to buck tradition rather than become yet another victim of the “line of tragedies” so many women in her family endured. “The stories always ended the same, only different girls died, and I didn’t want to hear them anymore,” she decides.

In the haunting “Sisters,” Fajardo-Anstine transports readers to Denver in 1955, where teenage sisters Doty and Tina Lucero live in a duplex off Federal Boulevard. They moved to the city from southern Colorado when their mother took up with an “older Anglo rancher” who gave the girls unwelcome attention. Now they are both working as receptionists, and Tina is determined to marry well to secure her future, while Doty “had no interest in men.” But at a time when men control most aspects of public life, pretty, Patsy Cline-loving Doty struggles to escape a persistent suitor.

In the affecting story “Tomi,” Nicole returns from La Vista Correctional Facility in Pueblo, where she spent time for crashing her car through “an elderly couple’s picture window at four in the morning.” Nicole comes home to the Denver house her brother, Manny, inherited when their father died. Manny’s wife has left him, and his son, Tomi, is adrift—overweight, failing his reading class and spending all his time playing video games. Nicole, who years ago stole money meant for Tomi’s education, unexpectedly becomes a good influence on him, though her brother is the only person who believes she’s a decent person at heart.

In “Ghost Sickness,” Ana is trying to make a better life for herself but is in danger of failing her “History of the American West” class. “If she fails,” Fajardo-Anstine writes, “she’ll lose her scholarship, the displaced fund, given to the grandchildren of Denver residents, mostly Hispano, who once occupied the Westside neighborhood before it was plowed to make way for an urban campus.” Although historical facts elude Ana on the final, a Diné creation story her wayward boyfriend once told her saves the day.

In story after story, characters who are on the verge of slipping into the abyss are saved somehow, mainly by the profound pull of indestructible family ties and shared culture in the form of stories, rituals and remedies. Wealthy newcomers may keep coming to Colorado, Sabrina and Corina suggests, but their money can’t buy the sense of heritage and interconnectedness shared by the Latino and Indigenous residents they’re displacing.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News. Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and McSweeney’s. She is on the faculty of the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver.

Sabrina and Corina: Stories

By Kali Fajardo-Anstine

One World

224 pages, $26

Published in Literature

Who hasn’t wondered what a favorite writer might have bestowed on the world if not silenced too soon? What fan doesn’t long for more—letters, a journal, unpublished fragments, even an annotated grocery list?

Devotees of the late southern Utah essayist Ellen Meloy need no longer wait. The sketches gathered in Seasons predate her untimely 2004 death by up to 10 years and are not, strictly speaking, last words. For those who haven’t yet discovered Meloy, they can serve as a gateway drug to her profound, sometimes deceptively breezy work.

Seasons’ opening salvo, the thoughtful but hilarious “I Stapled My Hair to the Roof,” encapsulates her approach. Outspoken and passionate, Meloy skewers grandstanding, mindless consumption, militarism, patriarchy: “In pioneer times, while the men mumbled about posses and punched each other’s lights out, the grandmothers of my Anglo neighbors simply got off their horses and took care of business.” She makes an absolute gas out of much that is ghastly. Meloy’s eloquent levity, however, was no mere parlor trick; the humor sugarcoats the pills we’ll have to swallow if our planet is to heal. This threads through all of her books, even The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, her 1999 account of a nuclear road trip. Such light-handedness has been lacking in too-often dour and preachy “nature writing” ever since Edward Abbey rowed into the back-of-beyond, followed all too soon by this Bluff, Utah, philosopher-clown.

Seasons’ gems all originated as radio pieces. The “Roof” story in particular showcases Meloy’s structural genius. Stapled between her gables, she contemplates the view rippling concentrically outward from the house to include the San Juan River, Diné Bikéya (the Navajo heartland), the Colorado Plateau, Earth, and the universe—a mirror of this writer’s bio-centric orientation. In the essay’s final scene, she flips the perspective, seeing herself through the eyes of gyre-borne vultures: a speck in the landscape, a “two-legged smudge on a plywood platter.”

Among countless other things, Seasons’ 26 one-to-two-page vignettes portray quotidian acts: birding, fishing, boating, listening, voting, herding lizards, chauffeuring dough and—yes—watching TV. Chop wood, carry water. Go to the town dump, but pay attention; “If your Tevas melt, it’s probably not a good day to scavenge.” Like the critters and plants Meloy cherished, nothing was too commonplace to escape her laser-beam attention. She kept returning to desert bighorn sheep, which she personalized and immortalized in Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild (2005). They, like their domesticated cousins, make an appearance in Seasons. The tame ones bounce around a truck bed “like berserk piñatas,” alas, slaughterhouse-bound.

For me, a former Moab guide, the magic portal into Meloy’s universe was Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River, her 1994 distillation of eight years of floats through Desolation Canyon with her husband, Mark, a Bureau of Land Management ranger. It is hard to resist an author who so downplays her considerable outdoor skills, who named one place “Deviated Septum Riffle” after her oar struck bottom and its shaft was rammed into her nose.

The curiosity of this sagebrush sage delighted in the bizarre. Who knew that European classical violin virtuosos palmed toads before a performance so that neurotoxins from the amphibians’ glands would numb their own and prevent sweating? Or that medieval science posited that geese hatch from mussels? Meloy’s own behavior displayed streaks of eccentricity when she crossed barbed wire and in socks and pajamas thrashed through tamarisks in the dark, alerting geese about to be ambushed. Or when she swapped notes tucked under windshield wipers with a literary stalker, as recounted in The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky.

That collection, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist, also brought her visual verve to the fore. A plein-air watercolorist and one-time art curator, she’d studied at the Sorbonne, so it is no surprise that her writing sparkled with haiku-like lines, conjuring scenes worthy of Van Gogh. Sunbathers’ skin “blushes in lambent coral air or ripples in a stab of lemony sunlight.” One wishes samples of Meloy’s paintings were at hand to match with her writing. Seasons’ few black-on-white drawings give only inklings. Her artistic training taught her patience, to just sit and watch the light change and notice nuances—terracotta, blood red, salmon, vermilion, the “temperament of iron” scoring mesa flanks.

This is a slim volume, but you shouldn’t be fooled. It telescopes decades spent exploring home and the desert, two terms that for Meloy became synonyms. Stuff it in your pocket, and perch atop The Goosenecks or the Raplee Anticline, where wind gusts can make the roots of your hair ache. Relish it, and if you’re lucky, some bighorn sheep might pop up from the limestone, “all springs and coils.”

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean. An anthropologist and wilderness guide, he also dabbles in photography. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Seasons: Desert Sketches

By Ellen Meloy

Torrey House

100 pages, $14.95

Published in Literature

When she discovered that she was pregnant, Stephanie Land ripped up her application for the University of Montana’s creative-writing program. Yet her dream of being a writer in Missoula endured, shining like a beacon above the daily grind of poverty she now found herself trapped in as a single mother.

She yearned for Missoula, a laid-back, picturesque college town, but knew that good-paying jobs there were hard to come by, and housing costs were disproportionately high. She told herself that, once in Montana, she could reinvent herself and set an example for her daughter by becoming “the person I expected myself to be.”

But it would be years before Land managed to escape. Her debut memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, takes place mostly in Washington’s Skagit County, a rural area north of Seattle. Like many of its Western counterparts, it suffers from the ripple effects of a nearby big city’s lack of affordability without any of the benefits of urban living—reliable public transportation and a geographic concentration of jobs and amenities—that can help offset housing costs.

Land gives little more than a paragraph to her decision to have a child, and it can be tempting for the reader to judge her choices. But Land’s openness highlights the injustice of our culture’s eagerness to criticize the personal decisions of poor people, particularly of women. (How many women are judged equally harshly for not having children?) Poor women have it especially hard; at least their more privileged sisters have a chance of keeping their private lives private. It’s often only the maid who sees the struggles they hide from the world.

Land’s intimate first-person perspective sets Maid apart from other nonfiction about poverty in America. Readers who have never lived close to the poverty line or navigated the maze of public-assistance programs will have their eyes opened by Land’s careful breakdowns of her household budget and her maddening dealings with bureaucracy. A sense of deep loneliness often left her aching for a normal life, for the person she used to be or could have become. “I was starved for kindness,” she tells us. “I was hungry for people to notice me, to start conversations with me, to accept me. I was hungry in a way I’d never been in my entire life.”

Land experiences the invisibility common to poor people in America: Cleaning houses, she works like a ghost in homes while the owners are away; in the waiting rooms of government offices, she is nothing but a number in the system; when she buys groceries with her EBT card, customers and cashiers dismiss her as just another lazy food-stamp recipient. But in other settings, her poverty itself is invisible: “People I talked to rarely assumed I needed food stamps to survive, and they always said ‘those people’ in conversations. Yet ‘those people’ were never people like me. They were immigrants, or people of color, or the white people who were often referred to as trash. When people think of food stamps, they don’t envision someone like me … someone like a neighbor. Someone like them.”

With 42 million people—about one in eight Americans—currently receiving food stamps, there’s a good chance many of them are your neighbors; maybe you’re one of them. Under President Donald Trump’s proposed 2020 budget, nearly a million people would lose their food stamps altogether, and almost everyone would see their benefits reduced. The budget guts several other programs that were vital to Land and her daughter’s survival: housing vouchers, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Medicaid. In showing how much poor people rely on these programs to survive, Land exposes the injustice of a rigged economic system that uses government assistance as both a political football and a bandage for systemic inequality.

“My paychecks made me feel like I didn’t work at all,” Land writes. She’s not alone: Today’s low unemployment rate obscures the number of Americans joining the ranks of the working poor. Of the 58 percent of adult workers who receive hourly wages, one-third earn less than $12 an hour, and nearly half make less than $15. Land made $9 an hour cleaning houses, and took home only about half that after the cost of the gas it took to get to work.

Many Westerners live in the places we do because of a strong sense of shared values: access to open space, investment in local economies, vibrant creative culture, the perpetual promise of starting over. But the growth of inequality in these sought-after communities threatens to destroy that promise for more and more of our neighbors. Maid invites us into one of the real lives hidden behind the statistics, prompting us to consider what this loss of opportunity means, both for our communities and our collective conscience.

Claire Thompson is a freelance writer based in Montana. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive

By Stephanie Land


288 pages, $27

Published in Literature

When your homestead in the Colorado Rockies is threatened by wildfire, it’s easy to believe you have a front-row seat at the Apocalypse. In her recent memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, novelist and essayist Pam Houston sees the disaster of climate change already unfolding at her ranch, but finds strength and solace in the practical work involved in protecting her land, her animals and the wild landscape they share.

Houston—the author of several books, including the short-story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness and the novels Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound—is an acerbic and self-deprecating writer. She often focuses on women who are competent in navigating the natural world but can’t handle romance with the hard-earned skill they bring to, say, white-water rafting.

The essays in Deep Creek examine the life Houston has created at her 120-acre southern Colorado homestead at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, “the only real home” she ever had. It’s a place she shares with various horses, donkeys, Irish wolfhounds and Icelandic sheep. As a professor of English at UC Davis, Houston has had to spend much time away from it, leading writing workshops. Deep Creek recounts her struggles to remain emotionally connected to the ranch and its inhabitants, even as her career compels her to grapple with the challenges of the outside world.

Houston writes candidly of her childhood in “The Tinnitus of Truth Telling” and “Retethering,” recalling how she was raised by two dangerous and abusive alcoholics, who between them managed to wreck 16 cars before Houston had her own learner’s permit.

Houston was desperate to find the kind of sanctuary offered by her ranch, a place of breathtaking beauty, seeking a sense of rootedness and protection lacking in her chaotic upbringing. She doesn’t dismiss the challenges and heartbreaks of rural life, but in “The Season of Hunkering Down,” “Mother’s Day Storm” and other essays, she conveys the merits of choosing an existence closer to nature.

The physical world gives her everything she needs for storytelling, Houston writes. She feels a “glimmer” as she goes through her day, “a little charge of resonance that says, ‘Hey, writer, look over here.’” As she notes, it is “my method, the way I have written every single thing I have written, it is also the primary way I worship, the way I kneel down and kiss the earth.”

Each chapter is followed by a “Ranch Almanac” entry, usually focused on her animals, from the poop-strewing habits of the mini-donkeys to the obstreperous antics of the chickens. These snapshots convey the everyday pleasures and challenges of living in a remote location.

The collection’s dramatic centerpiece is “Diary of a Fire,” an account of the conflagration that nearly consumed her home in 2013. Houston was teaching in Oregon throughout much of it, and her anxiety at not being there to protect her animals and buildings is palpable.

Now she can see the humor in her attempts to reach Portland’s airport with a volunteer driver who admits, “I’m way too scared to drive on the highway!” Vivid scene-setting is part of the book’s charm, along with Houston’s ability to juggle humor and pathos.

The piece is sprinkled with U.S. Forest Service fire terminology, which becomes a kind of poetry of competence—words employed in the face of monumental technical challenge. After record Western wildfires and more to come, the terminology feels more relevant than ever. Climate change will make us all revise our language of the cataclysmic.

Houston’s ranch survived, and Houston glimpses a silver lining in her experience: “Scary as it was, there wasn’t a single day in the West Fork Fire that wasn’t deeply interesting.”

Like a lot of nonfiction published in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Deep Creek contains its share of grief, anger and pain. Houston writes, “We are all dying, and because of us, so is the earth. … But it isn’t dead yet, and neither are we.”

As the book progresses, its tone lightens. Houston writes of the kindnesses received, and moments of danger averted by strangers “who have come through for me when I trusted them with my life.” She visits Alaska and witnesses a narwhal migration, “as magical a thing as will happen to me in my lifetime.” After the intensity of “Diary of a Fire,” the shift is welcome.

Deep Creek is genuinely uplifting and positive, with its author aware of life’s darkness, but determined not to let it immobilize her. With humor and insight, she shows a way past sorrow and into grace, for humans and animals alike.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News. Michael Berry is a freelance writer based in Berkeley.

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country

By Pam Houston

W.W. Norton

288 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature

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