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This is a watercolor of a book, pleasing yet irksomely faint. The problem isn't the prose. Kittredge writes boldly: "We have taken the West for about all it has to give. We have lived like children, taking and taking for generations, and now that childhood is over." No, the flaw's in the format. Sixteen disparate magazine pieces have been threshed into three longish essays (plus a short prologue and epilogue), then baled into a book. They don't quite hold together. Not surprisingly, Kittredge can't really tell us Who Owns the West by ruminating upon Raymond Carver or the Dordogne. The question washes out.
But he keeps giving it a go, with minor success. Most appealingly, he recalls the family ranch in eastern Oregon where he lived from his "scab-handed wandering child" days until age 35. (Kittredge's life on the ranch was also the subject of his 1988 book A Hole in the Sky, a minor classic that is his best book to date.) But then the soft-focus tone shifts to the glare of eco-reality: "We did great damage to the valley," he writes, "as we pursued our sweet impulse to create an agribusiness paradise."
This kind of soul-winnowing runs throughout the text, as Kittredge glances off Earth First, Louis L'Amour Westerns, "monied outsiders" like Ted Turner, a buckaroo boss named Ross Dollarhide, mustangs, grizzlies, Tom McGuane, the mining history of Butte, Montana, a Charlie Russell opening at a Great Falls art gallery, loggers, taverns, the proposed set-aside grassland called Buffalo Commons, dinosaur bones, Wilfred Brimley in The Electric Horseman, Lewis and Clark, and the Oklahoma City bombing. They're all connected somehow, Kittredge seems to say, and we Westerners have to understand our ties. It's not about owning. "In intimacy, he writes, "we learn to cherish each other, through continual acts of imagination. Nothing could be more political. More of what we need in the West today." Fine words. But the fact remains: this milky book doesn't help enough. -- Salon