Most helpful positive review
48 of 49 people found the following review helpful
A journalist's view of the West, both jaundiced and hopeful
on July 26, 2003
I don't often read nonfiction books that make me laugh out loud, but this one did. Egan is something of a gonzo journalist, taking on the vast subject of the American West and finding in it cause for both wonder and humor. The book is a collection of 14 essays, in which the author travels to places in 11 different states, giving readers plenty of local history, descriptions of dramatic landscapes, and a portrayal of "custom and culture" that reels under colliding visions of what the West should be. At every turn, he has an eye for ironies that both reveal and entertain.
After an introduction that takes place at a conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he begins his journey in New Mexico and Arizona, then moves northward, swinging through Colorado, Montana, and the Great Basin states, ending in California. There is much about cowboys, cattlemen, and Native Americans. We also visit London Bridge at Lake Havasu, an ostrich ranch outside Denver, the pit left behind by the Anaconda copper mining company in Butte, the casinos of Las Vegas, and the site of an appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the back of a road sign in Sunnyside, Washington. There are accounts of fishing in the Bitterroots of Idaho, river rafting on the American River above Sacramento, and hunting for Anasazi petroglyphs in the canyons of the Escalante in Utah.
Meanwhile history comes alive from a colorful and sometimes jaundiced perspective in stories of the conquistador Don Juan de Oñate's conquest of the Indians at Acoma in New Mexico, the massacre of a wagon train of settlers by Mormons at Mountain Meadows, Utah, in the 1860s, and the California Gold Rush. There are historical figures who make vivid appearances, including Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Lewis and Clark, and Brigham Young. The most affecting story is the author's retelling of Chief Joseph and the fate of the Nez Perce.
Egan gives us a whirlwind trip across a vast area of the U.S. He touches on themes that are common in books about the west -- the follies and vanities of those who have defied the realities of its arid climate, laid waste to natural resources, decimated its wildlife, and attempted to eradicate its native populations. While there is much to lament in what it reveals of the devastation brought by settlement of the West, it also seeks earnestly for signs that the spirit of the West still survives and can eventually thrive.
I highly recommend this book as an addition to any bookshelf of Western nonfiction. As a companion volume, I also recommend Frank Clifford's "The Backbone of the World," which recounts a similar journey by a journalist across the states that lie along the Continental Divide.