Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sea of Grass, by Conrad Richter


In the late 1800s, the Southwestern United States was the domain of the cattle baron.  Herds of cattle roamed vast stretches of prairie; plump, like plump, four-legged fish in a sea of grass. That is, until farmers, or 'nesters', from the east swarm the plains, eager to carve up the expanse and try their hands at coaxing crops from the dry soil.  With rancher Jim Brewton on one side and ambitious blonde attorney Brice Chamberlain on the other, conflict seems inevitable. When Brewton marries a city girl from back east, the conflict between the two men takes on a new dimension, and future generations will feel the repercussions.

This is not a plot book.  I mean, some stuff happens, and there's, like, shootings and hangings and trials and (maybe) infidelity and plenty of shady behavior.  But that's not really the point.  Really, all that is just an excuse to meditate on the nature of the west and what it is and what it isn't.  Oh, and to point out that apparently being a selfish jerk is genetic.

When we first meet attorney Brice Chamberlain, he seems--for a moment--to be a man of the people, a man out for justice and on the side of right.  After all, he just wants to see that these farmers have a place to live and raise crops and pursue the American dream.  A real hero-type, you know?  Except, oh wait--they're in New Mexico, which means there's a legitimate question as to how much crop-raising the land will bear.  There's a reason it's a sea of grass and not a sea of shrubs and trees and lush undergrowth.  And sure enough, after [SPOILER] the farmers get their way, they get a few unusually wet seasons, produce some actual crops, and then promptly lose it all when the land resumes its normal arid state.  They went and plowed up the range for nothing, and, in the process, killed the one thing that actually did well there (the grass), so that essentially all that's left is dust and sand.  Way to go, farmers!

(Aside:  This could be a great jumping off point for a discussion about how the argument 'but all people should have X!' sometimes runs aground on the reality of 'but X is not actually possible.'  In this case, the 'right' everyone is demanding is his or her own land to farm.  But giving them the land doesn't actually accomplish the goal, as the land simply cannot support crops.  Nowadays, we want people to have different things--a house, a job, an education, medical care--but we can also run into trouble if we don't stop to think about both where this resource is coming from and whether the resource is sustainable.  If we don't think about it ahead of time, we end up with a bunch of people who have houses but can't afford the payments, or who have advanced degrees and have no hope of ever paying of the loans they took out to finance their education, etc.  The declaration that 'everyone should have X' does not, by itself, bring X into existence. End rant.)

By this time, we've seen Chamberlain's true colors, as he's pretty much been a total self-serving jerk who doesn't give a rat's patootie about anyone else.  This is most notably demonstrated by [SPOILER] his apparent seduction of Brewton's young wife, who he persuades to run away with him to Denver, and then . . . he doesn't go!  Yep, that's right.  Old Jerkwad Chamberlain convinces another man's wife to leave her husband and go to a new city, and once she leaves, he decides to stay and accept a judicial appointment instead.  The Honorable Brice Chamberlain indeed.

'Mean old rancher Brewton', meanwhile, has been kind of a prince in comparison.  Sure, he has his hired hands run the 'nesters' off the range at gunpoint, but after his wife runs off, he ends up raising his kids as a single father . . . even the uber blonde one who doesn't bear much of a resemblance to Brewton himself and seems to have a knack for getting into trouble and generally being shady.  Rumors abound, but Brewton steadfastly stands by his son, treating him just the same as his other kids and generally just trying to be a good dad.  But blondie persists in being a punk, and like his (kind of awful) mother before him, prefers city life and socializing to the hardworking ranch lifestyle.  I guess that's another theme of the book:  city people kind of suck and can't be trusted.

So yeah.  This is a story about awful people doing stupid, awful things to a slightly less awful guy.  There's some excellent vaguely violet prose tucked in here and there, but honestly, I would have liked more.  Richter is great at waxing eloquent about the beauty of the seemingly desolate plains and describing life there.  Here's a sampling of some of my favorite passages:
That lusty pioneer blood is tamed now, broken and gelded like the wild horse and the frontier settlement. 
His empire is dead and quartered today like a steer on a meat-block . . . 
And I can see his huge parlor, without rugs or furniture, piled to the pine rafters with white sacks of flour and burlapped hills of sugar and green coffee, and wooden buttes of boxed tobacco, dried fruits, and canned tomatoes . . . 
Bottom line:  It's a decently written book, but not really a great 'Western.'  It does make a nice counterpoint to the many Westerns wherein the cattle barons are the bad guys and the trod-upon farmers are the heroic underdogs taking on the Goliaths of the West.  Best read in conjunction with other classic Westerns, though. I'm not sure it's quite sturdy enough to stand on its own as a classic.

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