A Breed Apart

Oct 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

Piece Like A River by Leif Enger

The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester

Peace Like a River , by Leif Enger (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24).Some writers aspire to write a great Western. Leif Enger has written a great Midwestern, a debut novel that explores the limits of filial loyalty and inscribes the northern Great Plains on the reader's bones. Eleven-year-old Reuben "Rube" Land narrates this early-1960s road trip, which begins when his older brother, Davy, shoots two town ne'er-do-wells and lams it on horseback into the pastured Minnesota night. Rube's family hits the road after him, towing an Airstream trailer, not so much searching for outlaw Davy as hoping Davy will somehow find them. "[We'll] simply go forth," Rube's father says, "like the children of Israel when they packed up and cameled out of Egypt." The Lands lumber through Minnesota and North Dakota, the damp smell of fog and the 20-below chill so vivid that you'll want to reach for a down parka. Enger's people are tender hearted stoics, played not for humor but for something more raw—Garrison Keillor's characters in the hands of Russell Banks. "We tiptoed through that town like a fat boy through a wolf pack," says Rube when the Airstream sneaks past a phalanx of state troopers. A great line—and just a taste of what Enger, a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, can do with the English language. —Bruce Barcott

Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch , by Dan O'Brien (Random House, $23). A few years ago, Dan O'Brien (The Rites of Autumn: A Falconer's Journey Across the American West) was a struggling, newly divorced rancher and environmentalist who hated cattle and yearned to restore the prairie ecosystem of his Broken Heart Ranch in South Dakota's Black Hills. Then one day near the Badlands, he almost hit a bull buffalo—"stretched out in the sun like a two-thousand-pound tomcat"—with his pickup. The animal couldn't have cared less: "He slowly raised the tiny, black hoof of his left rear foot, stretched his head out, and, as if the hoof were a delicate ballet slipper, scratched his neck below the long woolly goatee." Like Saul on the road to Damascus, O'Brien saw his salvation, and soon acquired 13 orphaned calves, the nucleus of his new herd. His first year with the "bufflers," as ranch hand Erney Hersman calls them, is a series of revelations. In the Great Plains version of Survivor, buffalo beat cattle cold: They don't stand around fouling streams like "ungulate tourist[s]"; they don't need hay in winter; they find their own grass; wind and snow barely affect them. Of course, it's still a struggle, with endless miles of buffalo-proof fencing to put up and steep loans on the animals to repay, but O'Brien makes us see what the Great Plains were once and could be again: "an American Serengeti."This is a bold, brave, beautifully written book that should be required reading for every cattleman and beef eater in America. —Caroline Fraser

The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology , by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins, $26). This Dickensian tale of treachery involves—of all things—fossils, maps, and plagiarism, and Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and other explorations of the British psyche, is the man to tell it. In 1793, an engineer named William Smith—hired to build a coal canal near Bath—noticed a world-shaking fact: that the rock underfoot was arranged in layers. To grasp the magnitude of this discovery, Winchester helps us inhabit the 18th-century, pre-Darwinian mind, which interpreted fossils as curiosities rather than the mineralized corpses of long-vanished species whose presence could lead miners straight to coal. Smith and other geologists recognized fossils for what they were, but Smith took the theory a step further, pointing out that rock strata "could be positively and invariably identified simply and solely by the fossils...found within it." He set out to produce, in 1815, the first great geological map, an enormous, wondrously colored, scientific vision of England's underworld. The map's value—particularly to the Dick Cheneys and Exxons of the time—was such that plagiarists copied it, leaving its creator to spend a summer in debtors prison. As he later wrote, however, "the man might be imprisoned—but his discoveries could not be," a decade later he finally won the renown he deserved. This richly illustrated book is a fascinating journey back to the dawn of the industrial revolution and the first glimmers of global warming. —C.F.

Fire, by Sebastian Junger (W.W. Norton, $24). Nine years ago Sebastian Junger began a book on dangerous jobs, but shelved the project when his second chapter, about a swordfishing boat named theAndrea Gail, took on a life of its own as The Perfect Storm. Now, this nonfiction collection marries the remnants of the original book to Junger's war correspondence, producing a record of the author's transformation from wide-eyed adventure seeker to seasoned combat journalist. The title chapter, a plunge into Idaho's 1992 Flicker Creek wildfire, offers up classic early Junger material: powerful men doing dangerous work and not whining. An attempt to write about war reporters turned Junger into one himself, and the book's second half finds him filing magazine dispatches from Kosovo, Cyprus, and Sierra Leone, training his gifted descriptive eye on the dangerous work of destruction, death, misery, and survival. The turn from adventure jobs to wartime atrocities can be jarring, but Junger's reporting is strong enough that you can't close Fire without the feeling that there's a great book about war in here waiting to be realized. In the final piece, Junger steps out of a medic tent, unable to stomach the agony. Then, driven by duty, he goes back inside. "This is the war too, and you have to look straight at it," he tells himself. "You have to look straight at all of it or you have no business being here at all." —B.B.

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