We read literature to escape, if only briefly, our own subjective silos. We yearn to piggyback upon someone else’s experience of life. And we seek, as well, clarity: the meaning someone has harvested from her existence—also the order and beauty in that restless act, that hero’s effort to distill coherence from the quotidian.
Here is a story; here is its wisdom.
The wonderful thing about this fine memoir, Julene Bair’s recent The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, is that it shines so brightly in both dimensions. Here is why books remain quietly important. Why they’re still honored in an age of louder, less personal mass media and of jittery, flash-in-the-pan social media.
The Ogallala Road opens with Bair on a quest for water, which she loves, this child of a thirsty landscape. She’s roaming beside a creek in the High Plains of western Kansas, trying to assess the effects of irrigation. She’s researching an essay. And then she meets, trespassing on his range, the Marlboro Man.
Not exactly, but Ward is rather iconic. A cowboy, not a sodbuster; a horseman, not a tractor jockey. In some ways, he’s very different from her dirt-farmer father, but like him he epitomizes Kansas itself. He’s also read her first book, the essay collection One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter. He’s handsome, sure, but the fact that he reads seals the deal.
Julene, 53 at this point and twice divorced, is long single. Sparks fly between this feminist environmentalist trying to make amends—with Kansas, with its remnant prairie and streams—and this macho cowboy just looking for a sweet ride across Earth’s trampled face. (Politics be damned: this thing between women and men never ends.) You wonder if it’s too late for her son, though; a boy who has always openly craved a father figure, he’s become a rebellious teenager.