A gifted writer describes the ebbs and flows of the arc of a romantic relationship while exploring her own bond to the American heartland.
Bair (One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter, 2000) explores her inner emotional life in this spare memoir that eventually becomes equal parts Robert James Waller romance novel, William Least Heat-Moon road show and agricultural exposé memorializing the painful legacy of the independent American farmer. The author begins with her memories of a childhood on the farm in remote Kansas. Returning home after years in metropolitan San Francisco, Bair felt like a stranger in a strange land until she met Ward, a laconic, closeted intellectual rancher who ignited a fire in this single mother. In subsequent sections, we experience Bair’s combative relationship with her son, Jake, to whom Ward represented a potential last chance at a father figure. Coming home, Bair worked with her family to preserve the large industrial farm that had become their family legacy but was faced with the harsh reality that their livelihood contributes to the rapid depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies over a quarter of America’s irrigated land with water—not to mention the fact that the farm’s fate was being decided on the eve of the ethanol boom. Bair offers an unblinking look at a woman’s place in a patriarchal culture. “A father for Jake, a farmer for Dad,” the author laments. “That’s why the time I’d spend helping Dad during Jake’s toddlerhood had seemed so healing. I had proven I could be that farmer if I wanted to, and Dad had accepted that I could. I rejected all those sexist implications, asserted my own truths, became equal in my own right, but look at me now.”
A lyrical but somewhat distracted narrative that can’t decide whether it’s a love story, a meditation on our lives on this planet or an attempt to follow Upton Sinclair into the depths.