Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter Branch (Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard, 2014) immerses himself in a huge Utah family to understand contemporary cattle rearing, rodeo riding, and the endangered environment of the American West, which is owned primarily by the American government but leased to private ranchers.
The Wright family goes back more than 150 years in rural Utah; their initial settlers were part of the Mormon migration in the 1850s. “Americans weren’t always known for their roots,” writes the author, “but the Wrights had them planted in the red soil of Smith Mesa before the transcontinental railroad was connected up north, decades before Utah was an official state.” Bill and Evelyn have raised 13 children in Smith Mesa. These children, plus an ever growing brood of grandchildren, populate the narrative, which is focused mostly on the men due to the rodeo thread. Branch tells the saga in mostly chronological fashion based on his time with the family, with historical flashbacks and occasional flash-forwards mixed in. The rodeo thread focuses on the sons (and a few of their sons), most of whom have succeeded at the highest levels in their sport. Participating in rodeos provides them with both monetary rewards and a sense of competitive pride, not to mention plenty of broken bones and head injuries. The cattle-rearing thread focuses primarily on patriarch Bill; his children and grandchildren pitch in at times, but caring for the herd is his passion. As the story progresses, the grazing land begins to wear out, federal regulators keep watch, corporate cattle operations swallow the industry, and tourism encroaches. All the while, Bill wonders how many more years his business will remain viable.
Packed with fascinating information, lively writing, and a certain pleasant nostalgia, this book is a good candidate for reading one chapter per day; eventually, the narrative becomes unwieldy—too many family members to track easily, too many long drives to rodeo after rodeo, and too many abrupt narrative shifts from cattle to rodeo to environmental degradation.