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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

Hachette

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

At a 1969 celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad, 2,000 miles of track that linked the Central Pacific Railroad to the Eastern rail network, Transportation Secretary John Volpe crowed: “Who else but Americans could drill tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?”

Volpe was apparently unaware that the Chinese workers who actually did the drilling were barred from obtaining U.S. citizenship.

A new book from Stanford University historian Gordon Chang confronts this amnesia. Ghosts of Gold Mountain seeks to give long-overdue acknowledgement to the 20,000 Chinese laborers who built the railroad’s Western section. Thousands died crossing the Sierra Nevada, and the railroad companies paid the Chinese workers far less than their white counterparts. Released earlier this month, days before the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s completion—which occurred May 10, 1869—the book is the most comprehensive account to date of the lives of the Chinese workers who built the railroad.

An American history professor and fourth-generation Californian, Chang has a personal stake in this story. Leland Stanford, his university’s founder, was a railroad industry tycoon who considered the Chinese workers “an inferior race.”

“That was part of my motivation,” Chang said. “It kept me going through the hard work to know that this story was close to home. I wanted people at Stanford—and everybody—to know about it. There’s so much history glorifying him, but that’s only part of the story.”

I recently spoke to Chang, who wants the Chinese railroad workers recognized as vital figures in the history of the West’s development.

What did the research on the Chinese railroad workers look like before your book?

Other historians described the scale of the work, perhaps, or the numbers, or where they labored, but because they wrote about the Chinese mainly as people observed, there was little vitality in the descriptions and little sense of what the Chinese might have experienced. And you know, in most of written history, there’s a preference or pattern, certainly—maybe unconsciously—of assuming the point of view of the well-known people, the leaders, the bigwigs, the capitalists and the politicians, because they leave so much of their own material behind. We don’t have that with the Chinese, and that requires a very different kind of historical effort.

That was one of the more striking aspects of the book, to me—the depth of detail on the workers’ lives. Can you say more about what they endured?

The Sierras are largely granite. To build a railroad through those mountain passes at 7,000 or 8,000 feet, and then to carve tunnels out of granite at those elevations, is a particularly daunting challenge. All the construction work was completed using basically hand tools: chisels, shovels, picks and blasting powder for the tunnels. They’d use chisels and sledgehammers to dig holes into the rock and stuff it full of powder, and blow out big cracks in the rock and then chisel and hammer out the rest. It was really backbreaking, numbing, bone-breaking work.

One chapter focuses on the worker strike of 1867, the biggest of the time. You present it as a forgotten moment in the history of American labor and an important instance of worker solidarity. How should we remember the impact of that strike?

The strike is, like so much of the Chinese railroad history, not included in many accounts of the railroad, nor (is it) in most of the accounts of American labor history. Many labor history books are written by people sympathetic to workers, but it’s curious that most of them don’t mention the strike at all, including famous works by (Selig) Perlman and (Philip) Foner and others. You’d think they would like to celebrate this moment of solidarity.

It’s remarkable that 3,000 workers in 1867 could take such coordinated action—spread out along miles of the track—in the face of isolation. But they did, to the shock of the employers, who had no inkling of this until it happened.

Contrary to views that Chinese are servile and passive, the strike was anything but those things.

You take care to emphasize the achievement in building the railroad. Do you see this as a story of heroism as well?

This is a story of sacrifice, of suffering, of tragedy, but also of heroism. This is a heroic endeavor and accomplishment. They didn’t brag about it, but I feel like I can brag for them today. They should be acknowledged for their extraordinary effort, even if they may not have thought of themselves as heroic at the time. They just thought there was work to be done. They were just working hard, suffering and hoped to get through it alive.

Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News, where this piece first appeared.


Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

By Gordon H. Chang

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

320 pages, $28

Published in Literature

A big tree can seem monolithic and solitary—several armspans of girth, a towering crown. Trees, though, are often part of a community. Through a network of roots and fungal threads, they can warn each other of danger and even feed a lopped stump. They nourish and house countless creatures, which nourish them in turn.

Trees, in other words, embody the power of relationships to sustain life. And forming a relationship with trees, two books by first-time authors suggest, can lead people to help do the same on a grand scale—from stumping on behalf of old-growth temperate rainforests, to fighting climate change.

Journalist Harley Rustad centers his exploration of this theme on an unlikely catalyst: a single logger meeting a single Douglas fir. Dennis Cronin was marking a grove for harvest in 2011 when he came upon the giant tree—217 feet tall. On impulse, he wrapped it with a ribbon that spared it as the rest of the trees fell. So was born Big Lonely Doug, a nickname that Rustad adopts as the title of his book—a sweeping natural and human history of logging on Canada’s Vancouver Island, and the movement to save its vastly diminished woods.

As Rustad’s protagonist and carefully researched prose show, the battle lines in such fights are rarely clear. The Pacheedaht First Nation both defends its ancient forests and logs parts of them for the economic benefit of its people. The loggers who worked the region’s forests, meanwhile, became as familiar with them as any treehugger. The trees’ size and steep footing meant that they could only be cut by hand with saws. And in this closeness, some loggers came to revere them.

Environmental groups built trails and marketing campaigns around the last giants standing in an effort to help average citizens understand the stakes, winning protections in the process, but also alienating First Nations by acting without regard for their deep knowledge of place. Ironically, Cronin’s fir gives conservationists their perfect icon: An astounding tree, marooned in a blast zone of stumps.

Rustad’s book is more of a nuanced explanation than a call to action, though the implication is clear: The intimacy of direct experience draws people to act.

Scientist Lauren Oakes picks up this thread from a more tender vantage and takes it further in the direction of advocacy. Her book, In Search of the Canary Tree, blends research and memoir, chronicling her own quest to understand global climate change through a single species, the Alaska yellow-cedar.

Other researchers found that the trees were paradoxically freezing to death at lower elevations because of rising temperatures; spring frosts burn their shallow roots as insulating snowpack vanishes. So for her doctorate, Oakes documents what happens to some Southeast Alaska forests after their yellow-cedars die, and how people respond. Though occasionally bogged down in detailed scientific processes, Oakes is lovely and lyrical in her fieldwork descriptions, and her interweaving of ecological and personal loss.

With the help of some tenacious techs, including Kate “Maddog” Cahill, whose illustrations grace the book, Oakes thrashes through the rainy woods of Chichagof Island and Glacier Bay National Park, gathering data, falling into a treewell, talking down a grizzly. Each night, she backs out of her sodden clothes and into her tent, and each morning, she climbs back into their moldering embrace. She and her crew are so hungry at the end of their first two-week stint that when they return to town, Cahill bursts into tears over an omelet.

Through the coming seasons, a picture edged with complicated hope emerges. Saplings are alarmingly sparse, and the study forecasts a grim future for still-healthy yellow-cedars, but a different forest is growing up around the dead, one dominated by Western hemlock.

As Oakes prepares to interview Alaskans who use yellow-cedar to see how they reckon with this change, her father dies suddenly in his sleep. In her grief, she finds insight in her subjects’ answers—people like Tlingit weaver Teri Rofkar, who advocates giving the trees a break even from harvesting bark traditionally used in yarn. The loggers who experiment with cutting standing dead yellow-cedar instead of live trees. The ecologists who commit to telling the story of change. In the end, she finds resilience and new growth here too, beyond the pain—an opening for healing, for new possibilities, for action.

A Tlingit weaver named Ernestine Hanlon-Abel tells Oakes a story that sums it up well. It’s about a man running for office, who comes to see her father. “See how the mountains are? A lot of avalanches, huh?” Hanlon-Abel’s father asks the man. “You’re gonna have to learn how to hold hands the way those trees do. … They send out all these roots, and … pretty soon, the avalanches aren’t gonna be able to … wipe it out. That’s your job. To hold hands.”

In this time of environmental crises, these books imply, maybe holding hands with each other, and with other species, is our job, too. To learn to connect differently with the growing world. To move beyond “natural resource,” as Rofkar tells Oakes, to “relationship.”

Sarah Gilman writes and draws from Portland, Ore.. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Hakai Magazine, BioGraphic, Adventure Journal Quarterly and others. She was a staff and contributing editor at High Country News, where this review first appeared, for 11 years.

Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees

By Harley Rustad

House of Anansi Press

328 pages, $18.95

In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World

By Lauren E. Oakes

Basic Books

288 pages, $27

Published in Literature

For Robert Leonard Reid, protecting wilderness is a literary act.

The Carson City, Nev.-based writer has spent 40 years roving Western landscapes in an effort to preserve them, primarily through his words. Reid’s latest work, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West, displays an almost claustral curiosity: An exploratory spirit envelops and propels him across the Arctic, the Sierras, the Rockies, the sacred spaces of Native America and all the toeholds and crags in between, from the High Plains of eastern New Mexico to the Bugaboos in British Columbia.

Reid writes with the flair of daredevil naturalist Craig Childs and the philosophical quotient of nature essayist Edward Hoagland. The book functions like an atlas; each essay is a wayfinding tool, navigating the reader toward “the mystique of the American West”—something that, despite the book’s subtitle, he seeks not to unravel, but preserve: “A journey into the Sierra, even today, is a journey into ambiguity and mystery … any account of a wilderness journey that omits the ambiguity … is bound to be false.” Mystique is his muse in these essays, which blend wilderness and adventure writing, environmental reportage, and historical and literary analysis. Drawing on three earlier books and previously unpublished material, this career-spanning collection was a finalist for the 2018 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

A central question unifies the book: How do you truly know a place? Topophilia—loving a particular landscape and identifying with it deeply—might be innate in each of us, but it is not necessarily accessible to us. It is for Reid, however. A formative experience with environmental writer Barry Lopez in 1979 fired Reid’s literary intuitions. A mountain climber and would-be writer, Reid attended a wilderness-preservation conference that Lopez keynoted. His speech struck Reid like a bolt from the sky. Lopez argued that wilderness activists needed to tell their legislators “that a certain river or butterfly or mountain … must be saved, not because of its economic (or) recreational or historical or scientific value, but because it is so beautiful.” Reid’s future as a writer flashed into focus. Aesthetic value alone can save a landscape, but not unless it has a voice.

Reid builds that voice through sentences that construct landscapes and court curiosity, as his lexicon shifts with the terrain. His diction bewitches even the sleepiest of readers: J. Robert Oppenheimer is a “Heldentenor in cowboy boots”; the scientists at Los Alamos, those “Kyries of Trinity,” are “hosannas.” Reid is a craftsman: “Writers who hope to reveal the essential matter of their subjects must have the patience, the facility, and, not least of all, the good luck to discover the proper light.”

Reid is keen on New Mexico, whose “wide skies and yawning spaces” remind him of the Judeo-Christian tradition of “seeking God in big empty country.” Such places attract people “drawn to grand vistas and soul-searching ruminations”—such as Oppenheimer. Reid understands the contradictory forces at play in sacred spaces. In Los Alamos, “physics and engineering became prayers and incantations,” as if the magnitude of scientific discovery was a manifestation of the divine itself. A pilgrimage to a back-to-the-lander’s remote cabin in Alaska’s Brooks Range—“80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, 50 miles from the nearest neighbor, 200 miles from the nearest road”—dovetails with a story about the elusive Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates annually to its calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Reid tracks down the caribou right as they give birth, unraveling a mystical ecological process that had previously eluded him.

Whether one agrees that awe and beauty trump economics might be beside the point for Reid. His writings are about the larger point: the courage it takes to pursue one’s ultimate aim, or telos. “To save a wilderness, or to be a writer or a cab driver or a homemaker—to live one’s life—one must reach deep into one’s heart and find what is there, then speak it plainly and without shame.” There is an evolutionary quality to the way his ideas mutate and build in the book, with each successive essay refining his lens on the West. This makes sense. You can’t capture mystique; it continually enchants us and then slips away. The more Reid interfaces with it—the more peaks and passes he pursues—the more his essays (and he) unfold.

Eric Siegel, a poet and writer, is a field instructor for the Wild Rockies Field Institute in Montana, and teaches Environmental Humanities at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West

By Robert Leonard Reid

Counterpoint

320 pages, $16.95

 

Published in Literature

The Basque Country of northern Spain and southern France is a land of misty coastlines and damp mountains—green and soft. Yet in the 19th and 20th centuries, many Basques immigrated to some of the driest regions of the United States—places like Nevada, eastern Oregon and Idaho.

One Basque shepherd recalled his first experiences after arriving in Nevada: “I wasn’t much more than 16 years old, you know. And they sent me into the desert with a dog and 3,000 sheep. … Though Basques are used to being alone, these deserts were something else.”

A century later, a family from the Spanish Basque Country relocated to the urban wilds of Reno. Bernardo Atxaga’s Nevada Days once again raises the question: How does someone who grew up in a verdant European countryside respond, mentally and physically, to a bone-dry land with blazing horizons? In the case of Atxaga, one of the Basque Country’s most celebrated writers, it stirred up old memories and prompted a sprawling series of stories within a story. Atxaga (pronounced “Achaga”) spent the academic year of 2007-2008 in a writer’s program at the University of Nevada, accompanied by his wife and two school-age daughters. Ten years later, he published Nevada Days.

Technically a novel, it retains the realistic feel of a travelogue—and, presumably, it is largely just that. But the distinction here between fiction and nonfiction may not be that important anyway. Perhaps the most valuable quality of Nevada Days is that it gives the American reader the opportunity to re-imagine a familiar Western landscape from an articulate outsider’s perspective.

Atxaga’s observations highlight the particularities of a Nevada-style desert. Soon after arriving in Reno, the central character of Nevada Days writes a letter to a friend back home about a long drive with a friendly neighbor. He had been expecting a Lawrence of Arabia kind of landscape, a sea of sand. Instead, he found trees and shrubs, “piles of rocks” and trapezoidal mountains. “Seeing those trapezoid mountains in the distance, I got quite confused. I lost all sense of time and space. If someone had told me that I was travelling in the Discovery space shuttle rather than in Earle’s Chevrolet Avalanche, that we were crossing outer space and not the Nevada desert, I would have believed them.” But later that fall, his “mind turns the corner”: Walking into a dusty bookshop in Reno, he encounters just the right kind of silence, and then just the right kind of music (Summertime … and the living is easy). This “lent Nevada a pleasant lightness and suddenly it didn’t seem so very difficult to live there.”

Arguably, it is place, rather than people, that drives this novel. Nevada and its natural features are imbued with Atxaga’s underlying themes of violence, death and memory. Rattlesnakes and alien, abstracted mountain shapes suggest an existential threat. Black-widow spiders, and the kind of people who keep them, represent the very real threat of a killer who stalks young women at the University of Nevada and makes Atxaga’s main character fearful for his daughters. Meanwhile, the raccoon that makes regular appearances in the backyard—initially a startling figure with eyes that shine in the night—becomes a comforting source of consistency in the family’s Reno home.

The landscape of language plays a role here, too. Atxaga is a much-admired author who has published in both Spanish and Basque; Nevada Days was written in Basque, translated into Spanish by Atxaga, and then rendered into a recognizably British form of English by a professional translator. The text emphasizes sensations, metaphor and musings that leave the reader with visceral impressions: mysterious desert, loud city, intimidating mountains. Westerners might expect Atxaga to present a clichéd version of his visit, developing Old West tropes of ghost towns, brothels and vulgar Americana. But though Atxaga is not interested in tearing down American culture, he does bring the critical eye of an outsider to its peculiarities.

In the spring, the novel’s main character drives to Lake Tahoe to attend the memorial service of a soldier who was killed in Iraq. When he gets to the little mountain church, he is alarmed by the sentimental military poetry and the priest’s “velvety voice” repeating the refrain—“Honor. Duty. Sacrifice”—while speaking about a war that many found immoral. As he often does, Atxaga responds to Nevada by invoking references to European events and commentators, creating unexpected yet relevant connections that prompt the reader to reframe familiar ideas. In this case, the main character imagines himself reciting his own lines—created in response to the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid—at the American soldier’s service: “Life is life / And the most precious thing of all. / To lose a life is to lose everything.”

For Westerners concerned about the danger of cultural myopia, Nevada Days is a gift—a foreigner’s snapshot of place that is personalized, literary and thoughtful.

Sierra Standish is a doctoral student studying environmental history at the University of Colorado. This piece was originally published in High Country News.

Nevada Days

By Bernardo Atxaga

Graywolf Press

352 pages, $16

Published in Literature

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