The Uncanny Bakken

Another of my little spring break projects was a book review for a literary journal on Lisa Peters’ Fractured Land and Richard Edwards’ Natives of a Dry Place. I’ve blogged on the former here and the latter here. I think this is my best effort to understand how recent work on the Bakken contributes to a larger conversation about oil and social change.


Even as the oil boom in western North Dakota has entered a protracted lull, the publishing of oil related books has continued to boom. Lisa Peters’ Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil and Richard Edwards’ Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota Before the Boom represent two fine, recent contributions to the literature on North Dakota before and during the Bakken boom. Both books come from authors who have spent most of their lives outside North Dakota, but have reconnected with their roots in the Northern Plains during the expansion of oil related activity in the region.

Peters’ father grew up near Williston, and her grandfather, whose homestead failed north of Williston, found ways later in life to invest shrewdly (and presciently) in property and mineral rights on the Nesson anticline. Her father, who became an engineer at 3M, earned some modest income over his life from these rights and used them to build a cabin on the scenic St. Croix River in Wisconsin. Ironically, the author’s time on this river as a child and adult inspired her own environmentalism, and it is this environmentalism that motivated her personal journey through the Bakken, through the complexities of oil production, and the process of fracking. The book starts with her trip to visit her dying father who retired to Florida and concludes with her spreading of his ashes near an oil well on her family’s land. In between, she visits a fracking sand mine in a sensitive ecology in Wisconsin, has a frank conversation with a fracking engineer, visits a working drill rig, and shares coffee with a local farmer who has no sympathy for the oil industry. Her journey is personal, and she does little to hide her deeply conflict attitudes between the practical reality of our chemical-infused world, and the environmental risks of oil, the ethical questions associated with fracking, and the difficult history of the semi-arid northern plains.

Richard Edwards left Stanley, North Dakota when he was 12. Today, Stanley sits on the eastern side of the Bakken oil patch and is home to pipeline terminals, units yards, and oil field workers. The Stanley of Edwards’ youth, was more sleepy and less prosperous, but populated with a cast of characters who would be comfortable in a Mark Twain novel. Edwards’ book begins with a description of the conflicts between those who benefited and those who have suffered during the boom in contemporary Stanley. He then explores the Stanley of his youth borrowing freely from his family’s memories, photographs, and documents to tell eight stories arranged around a series of themes: resoluteness, steadfastness, devotion to community, pluck, commitment, dauntless optimism, spirit of adventure, and modesty. At first, these stories read like home-spun wisdom, but this belies their complexity. Edwards stories show that societies “usually get what they celebrate.” His tale of commitment, for example, tells how his aunt’s husband left his wife of 20-years to reunite with his teenage love. He demonstrates resoluteness in a story about the recovery of Tom Scrivner’s body from a dry well that becomes a murder mystery. However resolute town folks were in finding Scrivener’s body did not extend to finding his murderer. The subtle contradictions in these stories reveal the tensions within even the most conspicuous small-town values. By the end of the book, boom-time Stanley is somehow less different from Stanley before the boom, and more a natural extension of a society’s values.

The landscape and experience of the Bakken Oil Boom is distinctly uncanny. It is at once familiar. After all, the characters if Peters and Edwards book are people who we know in any town or city. They are environmentalists, concerned fathers, dutiful siblings, and eccentric neighbors. In many ways, the tensions between Peters’ environmentalism and her family’s oil patch profits are the same that many of us feel when indulge in the convenience of bottled water, leave our car idling on a cold winter day, or read a paper book because “we like how a book feels.” Both books speak to a very modern experience of being in the world.

At the same time, all booms are, by definition, sudden, unexpected, and extraordinary. As Edwards notes, societies get what they celebrate, but few can celebrate or anticipate such a sudden boom. In fact, many of the tensions present in the Bakken, from housing shortages to infrastructure strain, demonstrate the limits to our ability to anticipate these kinds of events. Fracking takes place far beneath the earth, using secret (or at least complicated) processes and chemicals, and the novel and unknowable risks of fracking contribute to the public’s concern.

The authors’ perspective as both insiders and outsiders contributes to their uncanny view of North Dakota and the Bakken Oil Boom. North Dakota is a strange and wonderful place, and both Peters and Edwards make clear that we can learn from it.

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