Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

At the age of 6, Bryce Andrews sat at his family’s kitchen table in Seattle, listening to rancher/artist Pat Zentz talk about building sculptures—and pulling spotted knapweed.

Art and agriculture went together, the boy assumed.

The next year, curators at the University of Washington’s art museum installed “The Myth of the West,” an exhibit his father organized. Young Andrews stood wide-eyed before Albert Bierstadt’s painting “Yellowstone Falls,” then turned and practiced his quick draw facing Warhol’s “Double Elvis.” That same year, his family visited the Zentz Ranch in Montana, in a pilgrimage that would become an annual event. Sixteen years later, Andrews himself began living the myth of the West, when he became an assistant livestock manager on a different ranch.

Andrews’ first book, his award-winning 2014 memoir, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West, begins with his journey from the “damp claustrophobia” of Seattle to the 20,000-acre Sun Ranch in remote southwest Montana. “I had practiced this departure many times,” he notes. “I was headed away from my youth.” The Madison Valley opens before him, peaks rising like “glinting canine teeth,” the Madison River drawing “a golden line through the heart of the valley,” which is home to two small towns, Ennis and Cameron. Intrigued by the ranch owner’s mission to reconcile the needs of wildlife, livestock and the land, Andrews gives narrative weight to all the members of this community—not just people and cattle, but wolves and grizzlies as well. “One of our great failures,” he believes, “is that we do not allow animals to be individuals. When gritty struggles play out on the landscape, it matters which wolves, which people, and which cattle.”

But not everyone in the community views wolves as individuals, and gritty struggles soon erupt. “The choices made at Sun Ranch about living with wolves,” says Andrews, “boiled over onto the rest of the landscape. If one ranch has wolves, that policy impacts neighbors.”

The Sun Ranch was a transformative experience, a proving ground that began shaping a three-pronged life as writer, rancher and conservationist. Afterward, Andrews continued working at the confluence of agriculture and conservation, managing multiple ranches in Montana, co-founding the Oxbow Cattle Company (a grass-fed beef ranch near Missoula) and consulting on land stewardship. When not on horseback, he wrote; in 2014, he sold his half of the grass-fed beef operation to concentrate more fully on writing and consulting.

The co-existence of aesthetics and manual labor is a major theme in Andrews’ life. Figuring out how something works, whether a landscape or a novel, is a hands-on process.

“Right now, I’m framing my first gable roof over a little wood-fired pizza oven,” he says, “and writing a collection of linked short stories about drought, ranching, neighbors and the contemporary West.”

Drawn to places where people are practicing agriculture in the context of wilderness, he is fascinated by the delicate balance that lets people ranch and farm among wild creatures, in wild landscapes. He and his girlfriend recently spent a month in Costa Rica in the largest remnant of old-growth coastal rainforest north of the Amazon, working with scientists at a remote research station at Osa Conservation. The nonprofit group’s vision closely aligns with Andrews’ own: the desire to see communities thrive through increasing engagement with the natural world.

“The Osa Peninsula is as different from Montana as any place I could imagine, but it’s like you picked up the resource issues of Montana, and dropped them into a jungle,” he says. “We talked about cattle ranching, co-existing with jaguars, banana farming, oil-palm farming, water and subdivisions.”

All undeveloped land, he believes, is forgiving, resilient land. “A rancher can make a decision that turns out not to be the best, but if the ecosystem is intact, the land will recover. Spring will come around. The Montana landscape, like Costa Rica’s, is infinitely complex and interesting. I want my writing to be a little bit like that, too.”

Andrews also wants to move deeper into the world of art and community—not to join the ranks of the new agrarians, but to help inspire young people to be creative thinkers in the context of practical work.

“Perhaps someday,” he says, referring to an idea currently simmering on his back burner, “there’ll be a ranch-based apprenticeship program combining agriculture with a curriculum in ethics, aesthetics, science and writing.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Literature

The Spirit Bird: Stories, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, is Kent Nelson’s latest collection of short fiction. Nelson’s stories feature diverse protagonists—a young single mother, a rabble-rousing Southern lawyer, a restless empty-nester—as well as an unusually vivid sense of place—the chile fields of New Mexico, the resort towns of Colorado, suburban Seattle—that establishes the land as an essential character in the stories. The people in Spirit Bird are trying to break out of their lives, and they share one major trait: dissatisfaction. They’re exploring, pushing boundaries, looking seriously at their own lives and asking, “Really? What now?”

In “Race,” Hakim, a Kansan of Egyptian heritage, is a glassblower living in Colorado. He is middle-aged and divorced; he misses his daughter, uses his talent to make tourist baubles and is viewed with suspicion by many locals, even though he’s been a member in good standing of the local chamber of commerce for 15 years. After Hakim collapses during a half-marathon and is revived, strangers seek him out—what did he see? What did he learn? “I learned how easy it was to die, but how hard it was to go back to the beginning,” he tells them.

In “La Mer de l’Ouest,” Scott Atherton is a white South Carolina lawyer whose new clients, a black couple, want a straw buyer for a house in an exclusive white enclave. Atherton is a liberal in a town where he’s tolerated by the local conservative establishment—until he crosses a line and becomes an activist. His wife accuses him of “glamorizing criminal behavior.” but he defends himself by replying, “The Boston Tea Party was a crime. So was Rosa Parks’ getting on that bus. … Did we not have an obligation to resist what we thought was evil?”

Adult siblings with childhood grievances spend a weekend divvying up their father’s possessions in “Seeing Desirable Things,” a scenario guaranteed to end in catastrophe. Allen, contemplating birds on the beach in the aftermath, stares at one and wonders: “How did it know of danger? ... How did it know where to go in winter, when to leave, how to navigate?” If only we humans could know those things, too.

Birds in this collection represent the self in perpetual motion, forever seeking. Lauren, the birder in the title story, asks what might be the question that underlies the volume: “When the spirit is always on the move, how can it settle?” Nelson seems to suggest that the answer is found in seeking dignity and a measure of social justice—doing your part to create an even field on which to play the game.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Spirit Bird: Stories

By Kent Nelson

University of Pittsburgh Press

336 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

Winds may blow, o’er the icy sea

I’ll take with me the warmth of thee

A taste of honey, a taste much sweeter than wine.

Music aficionados 40 and older are probably familiar with the haunting, Grammy-winning tune “A Taste of Honey,” made famous by Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert, and The Beatles, among others.

However, those music aficionados may not know the guy who penned it: desert resident Ric Marlow. He recently released a compilation of poetry and song lyrics, with a theme of love, called Tastes of Honey.

Born in the Bronx on Dec. 21, 1925, Marlow grew up on Long Island. As he sang, Marlow took other jobs to survive, including hauling cement, building tennis courts and driving a cab. He says his best non-musical job was demonstrating pogo sticks in the toy department at Macy’s. He claims he once sold $17,000 of pogo sticks in one month. Amazingly, Marlow still keeps in touch with the guy who worked next to him on stilts more than 50 years ago.

However, Marlow has always been, first and foremost, a singer.

“It’s an easy gig,” he said.

He was lucky: His musical ambitions were helped along by an aunt who was the secretary to the president of Chappell Music. Through her, he met some big names of the era, including Tommy Dorsey and Harry James.

After high school, Marlow attended New York University, and then joined the Army; his stint lasted a total of seven months. Upon reviewing Marlow’s application for officer candidate school, the Army decided the fractured skull he suffered in a childhood diving accident made him unsuitable.

His vocal talents later took him to Florida, where he married and had a daughter, who is now 68. Then he went back to New York. In between singing gigs, he worked in the garment industry, selling fabric to design houses. After divorcing, Marlow headed to L.A. in 1951. He was entertainment director at an uncle’s dude ranch.

Marlow joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1959, and carved out a successful TV career, with appearances on 46 television shows. He was always robbing someone, killing someone—or being bumped off himself. He appeared on Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges on five separate occasions.

However, his career-defining moment came in 1960. Marlow’s former pianist, Bobby Scott (who many call a genius), had been hired to write incidental music for a new play in New York called A Taste of Honey. The play was written by a young Irish girl named Shelagh Delaney, and the original Broadway version starred Angela Lansbury, Joan Plowright and a very young Billy Dee Williams.

As Marlow puts it, a week before the opening, Scott called Marlow from rehearsal and said: “Marlow, we’re in trouble.” Marlow responded: “What do you mean WE are in trouble?”

Scott explained that the director, Tony Richardson, wanted a ballad at the end of the second act, when the sailor leaves. Scott was stuck, and felt that since Marlow had been at all of the rehearsals, he knew the play well enough to come up with something. That something became “A Taste of Honey.”

The song later became a hit on the radio. It’s been recorded by many great vocalists, including Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams.

It was the version recorded by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass that won the most awards. When the Grammys rolled around in 1966, “A Taste of Honey” won the award for Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Instrumental Performance.

Not bad, especially considering it’s the first song Marlow ever wrote. He said he does not feel it’s even close to being the best song he’s written—but he still smiles when he takes those royalty checks to the bank. In fact, those royalties have allowed him to stop working. Marlow’s last musical show here in the desert was in 2011. He only works with the best local musicians, and says most venues here these days are not willing to pay what they are worth.

His new book, Tastes of Honey, has been a 53-year labor of love, he said. (Fun fact: The title was changed from Come With Me, which the publisher deemed pornographic.) The compilation of poetry and song lyrics focuses on love—wondering about it, finding it, enjoying it, losing it and then dealing with the loss.

I first met Ric Marlow at the Melvyn’s Sunday Jazz Jam, 16 years ago. I had arrived in the desert from Washington, D.C., just two days before. After singing a few tunes with the late, great pianist Andy Fraga, I was heading out the door when this guy came running up behind me with his business card. When he told me he had written “A Taste of Honey,” I was a tad skeptical. I went straight home and searched through my piles of sheet music to check out his story. There it was, in a compilation of pop tunes: “A Taste of Honey,” words by Ric Marlow, music by Bobby Scott.

Ric Marlow and I have been dear friends ever since. A true Sagittarian, he’s blunt, witty and hilarious. One of his pearls of wisdom: “Not everyone’s going to love you. That’s OK—just don’t cater to the assholes.” And at age 89, he can still sing. Friends are planning a big 90th birthday celebration for him in December.

Marlow has been married five times, and widowed once. When asked about his philosophy of life, Ric paused a moment, then recited one of the poems included in the book:

I think I’ve lost my place in time

For here I am, a man of rhyme

Who wiles away the idle hours

Spouting lyrics to the flowers

Thinking thoughts of love, not hate

Not too stupid, not too great

Not too skilled at magic art

Playing life as just a part

Spinning through each lifetime’s maze

In search of purple passion days.

Published in Literature

Just a block off a busy intersection in Albuquerque’s North Valley, a tile-covered two-story house stands like a poem. Mosaic flowers spring from its base, and pueblo-style rainclouds grace the front gable.

For 11 years, Bev Magennis added one ceramic tile after another to her home, not intending from the start to cover the entire building. “I just get on a track,” she says today from her new home, which is tile-less and about a mile away. “I love a long-term project.”

In more than three decades as a visual artist, Magennis created life-sized figures—even a “dome lady” large enough to sleep a family for the night. (At one point, she considered building a series of dome women and creating a sort of motel. Her then-husband was less enthusiastic about the idea.)

In 1993, she left Albuquerque for rural southwestern New Mexico. Catron County is home to Mexican gray wolves, the nation’s first designated wilderness area, generations of Anglo ranching families and a fair amount of social tension—sometimes boiling, sometimes just awkward. And for 17 years, it was home to Magennis, too.

“The land was so great, so quiet,” she says.

But a few years ago, she returned to the city, which she appreciates for its emotional freedom. “I still long for (the country). But I know the reality.”

Many people are tempted to create new lives for themselves in the West’s isolated towns and rural landscapes. But making artwork, building a home or even running a farm are not the same as belonging to a community. Those enchanting little towns aren’t always sustainable places to raise a family or thrive emotionally—especially if you’re an outsider, and a mistrust of outsiders and new ideas persists. Nearly a decade passed, for example, before a local storeowner’s wife—passing change across the counter—almost made eye contact with Magennis, a petite, warm woman who was raised Jewish, grew up in Toronto and describes herself as a “hard-core feminist.”

Magennis came to New Mexico in the mid-1970s as part of Roswell’s Artist-in-Residence Program—it was the best year of her life, she says—and then taught art in Chama. She didn’t start writing until she was in her 60s. After recovering from ovarian cancer, she decided to try her hand at fiction.

Today, she’s no longer constructing giant works of art or tiling houses. Rather, she’s working on a series of books based loosely on life in Catron County. Although they’re not classic mysteries, they do involve murders, missing people and the sorts of things that happen in the rural West when the law is loose and isolation wears away the good sense that people might otherwise possess. Alibi Creek, the first in the series, is set for publication in March 2016.

“When you’re living in a place like that,” where eccentricity is tolerated, she says, but not liberalism, “you do get to a place beyond politics with your neighbors, because you need them. You need someone to talk to.”

And that’s what the main character in Alibi Creek lacks. Lee Ann, who is neither eccentric nor liberal, has no one to talk with as she grapples with an errant brother (the “asshole” character Magennis loves), a dying mother, a disappearing God and controversy over the misuse of federal money at the county commission where she works.

“People are so proud of—and they should be proud of—this great tradition of ranching and surviving and endurance,” she says of her former neighbors. “I mean, those people endure.” But, she adds, rural Westerners can become so locked into their traditions that they can’t see that the world has changed.

“It’s admirable, but sad at the same time.” Magennis mentions, for example, the defiant swagger some people display when insisting they’ll never use computers. “That insistence might make them feel strong. But it’s not actually a strength,” she says. “The more narrow you are, that locks you in.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Literature

On the surface, California author Ruth Galm’s debut novel Into the Valley is a sidelong, Didion-esque glance into a 30-something woman’s unaccountable unraveling.

Beneath the surface, it is skillfully whispered social commentary.

Caught between the counterculture of late 1960s San Francisco and her mother’s conservative past, B. (as the main character calls herself) is inflicted with a strange malaise, one she calls “the carsickness,” which can only be soothed by cashing counterfeit checks. In desperation, B. drives aimlessly through the Central Valley, hoping that “its bareness would reveal something, provide an answer she had failed to acquire.”

The premise of Into the Valley does more than provide a pleasing nostalgia. (Ask yourself: When was the last time you wrote a physical check?) Galm’s B. finds comfort in bank lobbies, “the right angles of the teller windows, the teller’s movements like a soothingport de bras.” These precise, clean moments give her a “cool expansive feeling” and are set against the repeated mention of dirty fingernails and unwashed hair—the physical manifestations of B.’s mental deterioration. Galm, without ever directly saying so, is asking us if we, too, don’t feel dirtied by the present, inflicted with a nameless unease and an urgent desire to escape: “She wanted only to get away, to start over, to undo something that seemed to bind her. She wanted only to find a calm quiet place to breathe.”

Into the Valley is highly visual, suspenseful and appropriately grim, set in a landscape where spent sunflowers look “like a mass of defeated people.” Even if B. is traveling with no destination, Galm’s prose knows exactly where it’s going. Crisp and clear, it touches down lightly, like a small stone bounding down a scree slope. Showy, but without extraneous scenes or details, Into the Valley is a solid, muscular piece of writing.

Galm brings us back to the ’60s to show us how dystopian our present age is. The novel succeeds not by being a flashback to “the good old days,” but by being a hard-eyed look into the mirror of today: the impersonal nature of technology, our estrangement from the natural world, and the psychic consequences these things produce—even if we don’t realize it.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Into the Valley

By Ruth Galm

Soho Press

272 pages, $25

Published in Literature

You’re hiking alone along a steep switchback trail in Washington’s Olympic Mountains, when suddenly, you turn a corner and see a massive mountain goat, its black eyes trained upon you.

A few years ago, a goat attacked and killed a man in this very park, and, at the thought, a trickle of sweat wends its way from your hairline to your collar. The goat is still looking at you. Then you remember that mountain goats aren’t native to these mountains, meaning that both it and you are relative newcomers here. But does that—should that—knowledge do anything to diminish the wildness of this encounter?

Congress has the power to designate wilderness areas, but every wilderness-lover has his or her own definition of “wild.” A few purists would see the non-native goat as a deal-breaker, but increasingly, many people do not base their definition of wilderness on whether a particular landscape is “pristine,” or occupied by non-native species. Instead, they see wilderness simply as places that humans aren’t currently managing, whether it’s a remote mountain range or just an overlooked patch of pine trees by the railroad tracks. And this is true both of passionate, old-style wilderness-lovers and of pragmatic, technophile greenies, as clearly evidenced by two new books.

Ecologists have known for generations that no place, no matter how remote, is absolutely free of human fingerprints. We tend to notice the obvious signs: the traces of an old road, or perhaps—as Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark describes in his new book, Satellites in the High Country—a bright blue cooler washed up on a beach in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But increasingly, our warming climate is changing ecosystems humans have never visited. Either we accept a certain amount of human influence, or we’ll run out of wilderness altogether. “Forget untouched,” Mark writes. “What matters now is whether a place is uncontrolled.”

Mark carves out a fine distinction between inadvertent influence caused by factors like climate change, and intentional control. He offers a heartfelt ode to the continued importance of nonintervention in wilderness areas, even if doing so leads to unrecognizably changed landscapes. We should resist the temptation to help, he says, no matter the consequences. “The pika may perish,” he writes. “The Arctic fox might slip into the great void of extinction. Places we’ve known and loved … may become unrecognizable to us.”

British journalist Fred Pearce takes a surprisingly similar stance in The New Wild, although rather than despairing at the resulting changes, he sees them as exciting. We live, he believes, during a dynamic time in our planet’s history. He delights in tweaking the noses of those who despise so-called “invasive species.” For him, that doesn’t restore wildness, but rather reduces it in a futile attempt to freeze nature in time. His “new wild” is a mash-up of natives and exotics that vigorously adapt to climate change, pollution and incoming species without our assistance. Conservationists should embrace such landscapes, from abandoned industrial sites covered in plants that thrive on metallic soils, to second-growth tropical rainforest. We should be, he argues, “supporting the new, rather than always spending time and money in a doomed attempt to preserve the old.”

Both Pearce, the technology-loving pragmatic environmentalist, and Mark, the traditional wilderness lover, agree: Even in a world of overwhelming human influence, we shouldn’t intrude on every landscape with our well-intentioned sprays and shovels, poisoning weeds and relocating species. Both writers argue for keeping some places uncontrolled, unmanaged—wild, in perhaps the simplest sense of the word—as an arena for undirected evolution, as a traditional conservation practice, and as a good way to practice humility and retain essential mystery in the world.

Both base their arguments for nonintervention in part on the notion that as the world changes, it is nature—not human beings—that will figure out how to adapt. By killing non-natives, planting disease-resistant trees or shooting invasive barred owls to save spotted ones, they say, we may inadvertently prevent the species-level evolution and ecosystem-level re-sorting that help create more resilient natural landscapes.

Pearce uses science to bolster his case, picking apart the surprisingly thin evidence that non-natives cause lasting harm, except in a few cases (like the brown tree snake, which has destroyed most of Guam’s native birds). Mark’s arguments have a more ethical, spiritual and emotional flavor. Wilderness and wildness, he declares, are very good for the human soul. He says little about non-natives, but notes that he considers those introduced Olympic mountain goats to be indisputably wild, in part because as fierce, “feral” beasts, they are capable of killing us.

The two writers’ arguments for letting nature take care of itself are compelling and make interesting back-to-back reading. But there’s one aspect of both books that will alienate many readers: Both authors accept extinction as inevitable, to a certain extent. And many environmentalists will find it hard to accept that an abstract notion of resilient wildness is more important than, say, the survival of the Arctic fox. As Mark says, hewing to a policy of nonintervention as ecosystems change and species wink out “will require an emotional fortitude to which we are unaccustomed, an almost Buddhist sort of nonattachment.” We should rather restrict our emotional engagement to immediate and instinctive experiences in the wilderness itself, whether that be awe, reverence, or—in the case of coming face-to-face a mountain goat—naked fear.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man

By Jason Mark

Island Press

320 pages, $28

The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation

By Fred Pearce

Beacon Press

272 pages, $26.95

Published in Literature

Every day in Tombstone, Ariz., actors re-create the famous gunfight of October 1881, when the Earp brothers—Virgil, Morgan and the legendary Wyatt—along with their friend, Doc Holliday, confronted a gang of local troublemakers known as the “Cow Boys,” in a shootout that wounded several and left three dead. The battle lasted a mere 30 seconds, though in modern cinematic slow-motion, it goes on forever.

In Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell goes beyond the bloody melodrama, turning painstaking historical research into an absorbing 600-page novel that seeks to understand these men and the context in which they lived and fought. Russell writes of the participants, “Whether you live another five minutes or another 50 years, those awful 30 seconds will become a private eclipse of the sun, darkening every moment left to you.”

Russell ended her terrific 2011 novel, Doc, before Holliday’s brief stint in Tombstone, largely because she felt the O.K. Corral overshadowed the rest of a remarkable life. But now Russell carries forward Doc’s story, as he is increasingly incapacitated by tuberculosis and seldom able to practice his chosen profession, dentistry. As Russell tells it, in fact, Doc first comes to Tombstone in 1880 as a special favor, in order to tend Wyatt Earp’s toothache. Russell vividly depicts Holliday’s suffering, both physical and mental: A man whose reputation as an outlaw gunslinger becomes increasingly ridiculous as his strength wanes.

Holliday was the main focus of Doc, but dozens of distinctive characters populate Epitaph, a story that Russell tells with omniscient aplomb. One standout character is Josephine Marcus, the daughter of a San Francisco Jewish baker; she ran away as a teenager to become an actress. She winds up living with Johnny Behan, eventual sheriff of Cochise County, a man determined to further his political career by any means necessary, including exploiting the violence plaguing Tombstone. Behan discreetly allies himself with the Cow Boys, thereby rousing Wyatt Earp’s ire and eventually estranging Marcus, who becomes Earp’s lover.

Epitaph shows how a single bloody skirmish in the streets—a rare occurrence historically—becomes the mythic model of daily life in Western frontier towns. Russell ably evokes this epic myth, which continues to fuel our imagination, but what she really excels at is immersing readers in the reality of life in the early 1880s—the clashing tempers and political factions of people striving for power, fortune or at least a toehold in life amid the day-to-day grit of a rugged desert outpost.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

By Mary Doria Russell


592 pages, $27.99

Published in Literature

In “Mountains Without Numbers,” the first short story in Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest collection, The Water Museum, a middle-age woman pages through her high school yearbook before heading into work.

Frankie, as the locals call her, owns the only diner left in her washed-up uranium town. “The sky feels like it’s on fire as she drives into town,” the Pulitzer Prize finalist writes. “Her morning clients are always there before she is. Waiting for her. Feels like the last six people in the West.” When she can, she keeps her back to the butte where, for decades, the most daring high school seniors had scaled the cliffs to paint their graduation date. The dates, the stories—all serve as memento mori, painful reminders of better times. “Is a town dead,” she wonders, “when the old men die, or when the children leave?”

The stories in The Water Museum stretch from South Dakota to California—from divorced Ivy League professors to illegal immigrants—but all of them share a peculiar loneliness. And though in many cases, that isolation is buttressed by a stark Western landscape, it is rooted in the insecurities and restless minds of the stories’ protagonists. A Chicano graffiti artist slips into reverie after finding strands of long blonde hair stuck to the windshield of a scrapyard vehicle. An Oglala Sioux encounters a white man passed out on the hood of a Volvo on a country road in Wyoming. A widower struggles to follow his minister’s advice and “bend like a reed in the wind,” even as he finds himself deeply agitated by the influx of immigrants in his community. All of these characters are cut off from the world, lost in their own psychic territory, stumbling in their search for a way back home.

Throughout the collection, Urrea uses both Chicano slang and a rural Midwest vernacular with unassailable authority. These pages are filled with language so electric you’ll want to re-read the sentences, relishing Urrea’s sharp eye for description. (“Dexter watched her bottom work the bright blue skirt like a couple of tractor motors under a tarp.”) But the rich language is simply a bonus; it’s the subtle revelations hidden in the stories that satisfy the reader. They reveal themselves in the barest details: “The old motor court sits across the street. And a couple of white houses and two trailers,” Urrea writes. “Frankie thinks about how each of those little places is a story.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Water Museum

By Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown and Company

272 pages, $25

Published in Literature

Few issues in the West are more controversial than water, and Les Standiford dives headfirst into the topic in his new nonfiction book, Water to the Angels, a dramatic account of the life of William Mulholland.

Standiford traces Mulholland’s rise from being an Irish immigrant ditch-digger to being the mastermind behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the greatest civil engineering projects of the 20th century. In the process, Standiford, an accomplished novelist, displays his talent for finding and sharing compelling anecdotes that highlight the drama and adventure of Mulholland’s story.

Unlike other books written about Western water issues, such as Marc Reisner’s magisterial Cadillac Desert (1986), Standiford’s Water to the Angels passes over the complexity of the region’s water politics in order to focus on the larger-than-life person of Mulholland himself. Of course, politics and controversy flow with water wherever it goes, and Mulholland’s personal story remains inextricably linked to its context. “But controversies,” says Standiford, “have only one small part of my fascination with such tales wherein one of the most powerful men of an era undertakes a project that most consider impossible and overcomes all obstacles.”

Mulholland is clearly the hero of this story, but Standiford’s portrayal is nuanced and never overblown: The man was, after all, a mere mortal, who confronted numerous challenges in his life and made his share of enemies along the way. The mistakes he made were, on occasion, both public and catastrophic. Standiford recounts the most tragic failure of Mulholland’s career, the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which killed hundreds in one of the worst civil engineering disasters in U.S. history. “Devastated by the event that refashioned him from civic hero to villain in an eye-blink, Mulholland would at one point confide to a reporter, ‘I envy those who were killed.’”

Water to the Angels ultimately portrays Mulholland as a man who was responsible, intelligent, honest and tireless in his dedication to the public good. Although Mulholland doesn’t float unscathed through controversy—in fact, controversy still swirls around him today—Standiford’s story of the ditch-digger who built the monumental aqueduct will inspire anyone who has dared to dream the impossible, and then set out to make it happen.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Water to the Angels

By Les Standiford


336 pages, $28.99

Published in Literature

Alexis C. Bunten understands what it’s like to be an outsider.

A mix of Alaska Native, Swedish “and something else, French Canadian, I think,” the writer spent her childhood moving across the country, from Hawaii to South Dakota to Alaska and Washington state. She may have faced less outright discrimination than her mother and grandmother, but prejudice was still a fact of life. “Starting with the kindergarten role of ‘Thanksgiving Indian,’” she writes, “I was always inexplicably assigned the villain parts in grade-school plays.”

That outsiderness forms the backdrop for her first book, a first-hand account of the cultural tourism industry in Sitka, Alaska. So, How Long Have You Been Native? was inspired by the two summers Bunten spent working as a Native guide for Tribal Tours, a company owned and operated by the Sitka Tribe. The book deconstructs how tourism—“sorely undervalued as a suitable anthropological field”—influences modern Native identity.

“The (Native) culture on display,” she writes, “plays a bit part in a larger performance reflecting the dominant culture of the tourists themselves.” One local wryly calls the guides “Stepford Natives,” noting their perpetual cheer and willingness to go along with their customers’ cherished fantasies of a whitewashed past. Not to mention their idealized notions of the present: “Alcoholism, neglect, jealousy and violence (don’t) exist in the world of the Stepford Natives,” Bunten observes. “The veteran guides carved out larger-than-life personas. … It protected them from having to deal with never being able to live up to guests’ expectations of what it means to be Native.”

With journalistic precision, Bunten explores topics as varied as the influence of cruise lines on the Alaskan economy, the history of the Tlingit people and the ongoing effects of colonization on tribes. Despite occasionally awkward attempts at softening the narrative with lighthearted banter or extraneous personal asides, she succeeds in creating a sharply focused picture of cultural tourism today, especially in villages like Sitka, where between 10 and 20 percent of the local jobs are tourism-related. By fusing economic data with the personal experiences of Native guides—including her own—Bunten exposes the side effects of turning one’s culture into a valued commodity.

“Our clients longed for us to be further removed from modernity than themselves,” she writes. “And we complied by talking about nature, subsistence, ceremonies, and demonstrating other signs of ‘primitivism’—but we did so on our own terms.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

So, How Long Have You Been Native? Life as an Alaska Native Tour Guide

By Alexis C. Bunten

University of Nebraska Press

272 pages, $26.95

Published in Literature