Star Journalists Explore Rural America
Nonfiction works by John Branch and Eliza Griswold document changing ways of life in Utah and Pennsylvania
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When you live far from the city, it can feel like there are only two options: move or be forgotten. Yet a pair of new books—one set in the red rock canyons of Utah, the other in the pastures of Pennsylvania—suggests a third possibility: adapt.
In The Last Cowboys ($27; W.W. Norton), out last month, John Branch tells the story of the Wrights, a family that settled in southwestern Utah 156 years ago. Today Bill Wright, the aging patriarch, tends to a couple hundred cattle. He and his wife have thirteen children, many who have children of their own. (Wright seems to have a firmer headcount on his herd than on his grandkids.) Each year, the family reunites to brand the new calves. Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The New York Times, describes the action expertly—the noise, the dust, the smell of scorched flesh. “It smells like money,” one participant says.
Maybe, but it doesn’t bring much in. Branch runs down the factors that make life increasingly hard for mid-sized ranchers—drought, corporate competitors, environmentalists. But the Wrights have a surprising solution: the rodeo circuit. Bill’s boys earn millions riding saddle broncs. Branch captures the life of a modern rodeo star, from the crushing travel to the baby powder, an essential product given all that leather and sweat. (“You got that cheap Great Value stuff?” one Wright asks another. “No, it’s Johnson & Johnson.”) While rodeo cash props up the livestock, it also drains the drama from Branch’s ranching chapters. The Last Cowboys makes clear that the Wrights are now a rodeo family who happen to raise cattle, and not the other way around.
The subjects of Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity, which arrives on June 12th ($27; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), have far less money and far bigger problems. Like the Wrights, the Haney family have remained in one place—southwestern Pennsylvania—for generations. Stacey Haney is a single mom who works at the local hospital. She embodies both the old rural economy (living on a farm) and the new one (entertaining an offer from a fracking corporation that wants to set up operations near her land).
This kind of complexity saturates the book. Griswold, an Outside contributor and an acclaimed poet and journalist, carefully sifts through Haney’s reasons for finally deciding to sign a lease with the billion-dollar outfit. Haney knows the region needs jobs, she’s tired of all the war over oil, and she wants to build a structure to protect her family’s show animals. “On the six hundred dollars she made a week,” Griswold writes, “the dream barn remained a dream.”
Things go wrong immediately. The rumble of heavy trucks appears to damage her house’s foundation, the water goes bad, and she and her kids become terribly, mysteriously sick. Griswold narrates Haney’s response to the fallout, and the reaction from her pro-fracking neighbors, in lean, captivating prose—it’s part legal thriller and part medical mystery. Mostly, though, it’s a tragedy. If we could turn outrage into electricity, Griswold’s book would power the planet.
Yet there’s something more here than energy politics. Griswold and Branch both skip the country clichés and simply show what the Wrights and Haneys love about their lives, whether it’s running cattle or grooming a goat for 4-H. These books don’t just reveal the reasons rural Americans must adapt, but also the reasons they might want to.