- Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota before the Oil Boom by Richard Edwards
Richard Edwards provides a memoir of growing up in Stanley, North Dakota, during the twentieth century to demonstrate the consequences of the oil boom on the Bakken Range. He claims the boom “swept away the town that I remembered” (4). He decries the “loss of local civic connections … in what some have called a ‘winner-take-all’ society” (14) and asserts that “oil is speeding up this process, demolishing the last vestiges of the culture I knew with a destructiveness more powerful than the grasshopper plagues of old” (14).
Edwards seeks to shake the image of North Dakota as “flyover country.” His reconstruction of “Old” Stanley fits into the sometimes subtle, sometimes raw, revisionist movement in some contemporary histories that downplays class distinctions and ethnic conflict in the Midwest and Great Plains, the Dakotas in particular.
In concert with historian Jon Lauck, Edwards dismisses reporters like the New York Times’ Chip Brown, who characterized North Dakota as having been “stripped bare or just forgotten because it was a hard garden that no one wanted too much to begin with” and “has reverted to the wilderness that widens around dying towns.” Such reporters, removed from the region’s “rhythms,” write “like foreign correspondents” (175). [End Page 269]
Edwards counters their dismissive portrayal with an “Old” Stanley, one where “there were exceptional things in the lives of its people” and where “the values and virtues that they believed in and aspired to” are worthy of emulation (15). Despite his protests that he does not claim “the virtues of Old Stanley” are broadly applicable, or that he is trying to “sell nostalgia for a disappeared past,” that is precisely what the book implies (26). This is mythologizing the past.
The book has eight chapters, each with a title that references a virtue of “Old” Stanley: “resoluteness,” “steadfastness,” “devotion to community,” “pluck,” “commitment,” “optimism,” “a spirit of adventure,” and “modesty.” In each case, the exemplar of the virtue is a relative or family friend. They are all white, they are all middle class, and they are predominantly, although not exclusively, male. In fact, some of his best writing is about women.
In 2010 Stanley’s population was 94.2% white, 3.9% Hispanic, 0.7% biracial, 0.5% Native American, 0.5% Asian, and 0.2% African American (www.city-data.com/city/Stanley-North-Dakota.html). It cannot be a stretch to think that twentieth-century Stanley was even less ethnically diverse. To suggest under such circumstances that the virtues of “Old” Stanley can inform and inspire a wider audience is suspect.
The book has no footnotes or citations, but the reader can discern the craft of a historian at work, although Edwards holds a PhD in economics. He relies heavily on oral histories, often wonderful lenses into the past, but as with any lens, there can be distortions. Edwards relies solely on three interviews he conducted and a personal history for chapter 6. The subject of the chapter—a lost opportunity regained through adultery—is difficult to corroborate, but conspicuously absent is the perspective of the long-suffering woman whose husband’s cheating reunited him with his true love and thus ironically demonstrates the virtue of “commitment.”
Edwards writes well. His accounts are colorful and often entertaining, but there are exceptions. On a page where he writes about women getting jobs in the largely men’s world of oil, he provides a vignette about how his friend’s big sister was going to “jack off” a “tough, mean oil kid” (5). Why? It is disjointed and adds nothing to Edwards’s thesis. He is cavalier in naming people who were minors [End Page 270] at the time the events transpired who might not want to be identified. He does this again with a fourteen-year-old victim of sexual abuse (76).
Troublesome, too, is that although Edwards addresses some of the harsh results of government policy...