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The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning Hardcover – March 6, 2014

4.3 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In this thoughtful consideration of life at a crossroads, Bair tackles questions about single parenthood, romance, and the monumental task of determining the future of the family farm. Bair grew up steeped deeply in Kansas farming, but her life has taken her far away in more ways than one. A woman facing midlife alone with a teenage son, she finds herself falling into an unexpected love affair at the same time her father’s death forces changes to the family farm. In the midst of the more prosaic tasks of land management, she recounts her long concernswith the demands farming places on the land, especially the Ogallala aquifer. Threaded throughout each chapter are her travels along the Ogallala’s path as she puzzles out the changes the water table has suffered and challenges old agricultural traditions that continue to persist in defiance of logic. Bair’s measured approach to her family’s ultimate decision about the farm provides readers in a nonrural setting with a thoughtful look into America’s heartland. Book groups should find much to discuss here, from love to family to the big questions we all must face about how we live now. --Colleen Mondor

Review

Praise for The Ogallala Road

“A story of land, water, relationships, and love . . . Bair witnesses many changes from her birth in 1949 until the turn of the twenty-first century, a time when the small American family farm and many of its supporting towns were pretty much overwhelmed by industrial agriculture. . . . Her mournful tale is told with resignation, honesty, and heartbreak, but also with strength and joy. . . . This is a book by a tough, restless, energetic, admirable, principled Kansan who also happens to be a fine writer. Her voice is a welcome one.”
—Mark Bittman, The New York Times Book Review

“A narrative that a number of readers greatly enjoyed . . . Bair balances several themes: inheriting part of a Kansas farming empire and returning to live on the ancestral land; becoming an eco-activist when she realizes that her farm and all around it are draining the gargantuan, life-giving Ogallala aquifer beneath her feet; and getting romantically involved with a neighbor of decidedly different political views.”
Elle, Elle’s Lettres Readers Pick, April 2014

“Bair’s way with words is beautifully descriptive and one senses a deep connection to the land. The Ogallala Road is a wonderful mix of reminiscing one’s personal journey and history back to their roots, so to speak, concern for man’s impact and depleting of the land’s limited natural resources, and a poignant, sweet little love story with a bona-fide cowboy. . . . Julene Bair shares her heart and will touch yours with this powerful book.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Bair’s voice is fierce, passionate, and determined. . . . Readers of environmental literature will hear echoes of Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Wallace Stegner, and Rachel Carson. Yet she doesn’t lean too heavily on her literary forebears. She has written her own tale and coupled it with a story of water that concerns us all.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books

“The book takes on a narrative drive that goes beyond the usual environmental book. Will they fall in love? Will they find a way to keep the farm without draining the aquifer, like farmers had been doing for decades? . . . . But that’s a reckoning that is yet to come for Julene Bair, the farmers in Kansas, or for the rest of us who live on what was once one of the greatest grasslands on Earth.”
—Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Bair connects her life’s journey to the larger tale of the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas and other Great Plains states. The book beautifully blends personal and societal concerns. . . . The internal conflict that drives the book—Bair’s family is among the many irrigators whose farming methods contribute to the depletion about which she is deeply worried—is writ large throughout the states where irrigation is common. On the one hand, huge volumes of water are necessary to grow the most profitable crops; on the other hand, the aquifer simply cannot survive the current levels of depletion indefinitely. Bair delineates the challenges clearly, and doesn’t shy away from the complications and contradictions in her own life.”
The Gazette (Cedar Rapids/Iowa City)

“Some readers of this splendid book will revel in Bair’s able descriptions of landscapes, such as Kansas wheat country, the Kansas of her imagination (unfarmed grassland), the Wyoming mountains, the Mojave Desert and Death Valley (from experiences she had while living in California). Other readers will find themselves compelled by the descriptions of relationships Bair had with men along the way. All readers will be enthralled by Bair’s descriptions of her relationships with her two brothers and of her love for her son, Jake—from birth through his teenage years.”
—Prairie Fire

“Bair’s loving prose on the places she’s lived and visited make this memoir worth picking up. . . . Her descriptions are made all the more lovely by a plainspoken Kansas sensibility that brings the reader back to earth in good time.”
—Boulder Daily Camera

“Bair’s memoir is a moving and honest account of a woman trying to reconcile parts of herself that seem irreconcilable—daughter, mother, lover, landowner, environmental advocate. In searching for unity within herself, she discovers what she truly values.”
—BookPage

“A combination of nature writing, environmental concern, and love story . . . Bair’s contemplative praise of the high plains and the western deserts, her yearning for a father for her son and her lament for a dying way of life will strike chords for diverse readers.”
—Shelf Awareness

“In this thoughtful consideration of life at a crossroads, Bair tackles questions about single parenthood, romance, and the monumental task of determining the future of the family farm. . . . She recounts her long concerns with the demands farming places on the land, especially the Ogallala aquifer. . . .  Bair’s measured approach to her family’s ultimate decision about the farm provides a thoughtful look into America’s heartland. Book groups should find much to discuss here, from love to family to the big questions we all must face about how we live now.”
—Booklist (starred review)

“Nostalgia for the family farm in arid western Kansas vies with a deep consternation about the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer by crop irrigation in Bair’s ardent, deliberative narrative. . . . Her thoughtful work underscores the dilemma now facing farmers on the High Plains.”
—Publishers Weekly

“A gifted writer describes the ebbs and flows of the arc of a romantic relationship while exploring her own bond to the American heartland.”
—Kirkus Reviews

The Ogallala Road is a story about love, family, and the unraveling of the earth. But more than anything it is about what it means to be shaped by a place, to love it so much its waters run in your veins like your own blood. Like Wallace Stegner, Julene Bair writes about people inseparable in every way from the land.”
—Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars

“Bair elegantly weaves heart and earth, love and the place where it is born. You can taste the water in this book, and the thirst when it is gone.”
—Craig Childs, author of The House of Rain and Animal Dialogues

“A fierce mother, a dutiful daughter, an eager lover, Bair has plowed fields, driven tractors, and worked her father’s land. She has witnessed an erosion of values that has brought the American heartlands to the brink of environmental calamity. The Ogallala Road is her moving story of love and loss, denial and reckoning, and the emergence of a new kind of hope.”
—Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being and My Year of Meats

“Folded into an eloquent appeal for the preservation of the nation’s most vital source of fresh water, this wonderful book is also the most poignant remembrance of a prairie love affair—a small and finely-crafted masterpiece.”
—Simon Winchester, author of The Men Who United the States and The Professor and the Madman

“Bair explores the deepest of questions about time and place, expertly weaving together her family story, the history of the land and water, and her own struggles as a parent, daughter, and lover. In the end she makes a plea for integration of our personal lives with the life of the earth. This book is both an engaging memoir and an act of environmental advocacy.”
—Mary Pipher, author of The Green Boat and The Shelter of Each Other

“Read this book carefully. Ponder Alfred North Whitehead’s insight: ‘The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.’ Ask yourself what you would do if you were a farmer on the High Plains of Kansas. Julene Bair has given us a profound account of a dramatic tragedy.”
—Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Institute

“Absorbing and keenly intelligent, The Ogallala Road is a brave, unflinching examination of identity, home, and, as Bair aptly observes, ‘the price the land paid for our comfort.’”
—Maryanne O’Hara, author of Cascade
 
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (March 6, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670786047
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670786046
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #678,886 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Melanie I. Mulhall on March 6, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I drove through Kansas the first time in 1986. I was moving from Illinois to Colorado, full of vigor and excitement. I could easily have fallen asleep at the wheel during the four-hundred-mile drive through Kansas. I found it that barren and devoid of interest. I wondered what kind of people lived in such a state. I made that trip again in 2011, but this time, I didn't find Kansas to be quite so boring. I wasn't sure if I had changed or Kansas had, but I still wondered what kind of people lived in that state.

Julene Bair has answered that question beautifully in The Ogallala Road. This memoir, which is at times both gritty and poetic, weaves together primal questions in a tale that leaves the reader with both longing and fulfillment.

While scientists argue about the geographical origins of Homo sapiens and the timeline on exactly when Homo sapiens found their way to the North American continent, the rest of us have an inborn understanding--one many of us suppress, repress, and otherwise attempt to keep from our awareness--that all humans have a connection to the land on which they were born and raised, whether they are considered indigenous peoples or not. And even when we flee that land, as so many of us do in our youth, it often calls to us later in life because it, like our family, is entwined with our fundamental makeup.

Julene Bair left Kansas for adventures elsewhere, returned, and left again. In the process, she matured, married, had a son, divorced, and became a writer. But she could not shake the land of Kansas any more than she could shake her family ties. And because farmland in Kansas carries with it a strong tie to the water--specifically the Ogallala Aquifer--Julene could also not shake her growing concern about the dwindling aquifer.
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Format: Hardcover
"I found the pond lying still and innocent, a receptive, vulnerable reflection of the sky. This wasn't rainwater. It hadn't rained in weeks. My brother Bruce had been managing our farm since our father died--four years ago now, in 1997. He told me he was worried that the ground would be too parched to plant dryland winter wheat this September. No. This pond was what the pioneers and early settlers had called live water. It had found the surface by itself without the aid of rain, or today, a rancher's pump. It came from the aquifer, exhaling into the bed of the Little Beaver.

I dragged a stick, clearing algae away, and laid my palm on the sun-warmed surface. The water wasn't beautiful or bracing or clear like in a mountain lake. But it inspired tenderness in me because it was in danger. How large had the pond been forty years ago, before we started irrigating? Had the creek run all the way from here to the Republican River, a distance of about 30 miles? ... This place ought to have a tall fence around it, I thought. A monument should be erected."

The search for water, both the real ponds and streambeds she remembers from her childhood on her family's Western Kansas farm, and for the Ogallala, the mostly invisible underground aquifer that feeds them, draws Julene Bair back to Kansas after her father's death. Around that search, Bair weaves a powerful memoir that brings alive the haunting beauty of the shortgrass prairie landscapes, and the devastating crisis as the Ogallala Aquifer buried beneath it is pumped dry, removing the life-giving grace of water from that windswept land.
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Format: Kindle Edition
I have read, and enjoyed, a number of memoirs about farming and environmentalism. Because of that, I thought The Ogallala Road would be a book I would completely enjoy.

To be fair, there were things I liked about this book. Bair has a beautiful style that well suits the landscape about which she writes. I was completely engrossed for about the first 3rd of the book, and then things started to fall apart for me.

Up until that point, the book seemed to be a love story--a love story with the prairie and a love story with Ward, the rancher she meets on a visit home to Goodland, Kansas. Then, the book takes a shift and we go back to her earlier years in the deserts of the West and then back on the family farm. And all that would have been fine, but in this shift, it seemed to me that Bair lost her focus on the book. From that point on, I wasn't sure what exactly this book was. Was it a love story? An environmental treatise? A family saga. Honestly, any of those would have been fine, as long as I knew what it was. The book improves for a while after this, but the end is just as confusing as the flashback section.

I will say that this book frustrated me--there was nothing "bad" in the book, but it just needed to be streamlined and focused. Without any clear central theme, I was unable to truly enjoy this book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The summary gave the impression that the emphasis would be on the environmental impact on the overuse of the Ogallala aquifer on the high plains. But the author chose to dwell on multiple failed relationships with men in her life starting with an overbearing father who sends here searching for acceptance that is as hard to find as the waters drying up from over irrigation. The book ends in a fourth relationship and one gets the unsettled impression that neither conservation issues nor personal ones have much hope for resolution.
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