This enthralling tale by adventure writer Ross (Enduring Courage) focuses on the life of John Wesley Powell (1834–1902), an explorer, geologist, and early proponent of environmental sustainability. Ross portrays Powell as a practical visionary who challenged the status quo of the Gilded Age by encouraging people to “listen not only to their heart, pocketbook, and deep aspirations, but what the land itself and the climate would tell them.” His early life in the Midwest as a boy working on the family farm and as a schoolteacher and budding naturalist shaped his ideas about the environment. Ross displays a flair for adventure writing as he recounts Powell’s service with the Union Army during the Civil War (which cost him half an arm) and subsequent work on geological surveys of the West, and he renders Powell’s 1869 expedition of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon in breathtaking detail. That trip convinced Powell that water was the key to development in the West and led to his career in the federal government, where he fought for his vision of land and water management. Ross demonstrates a facility for both human history and natural history, clearly showing why Powell’s ideas matter today. Illus. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky, Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency. (July)
From adventure writer Ross (Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed, 2014, etc.), a new biography of a well-known figure in the history of Western exploration.John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) was famous in his day as the first Anglo explorer to travel the length of the Colorado River, in two expeditions, and explore the Grand Canyon. His voyages down that wild watercourse are the stuff of legend, especially inasmuch as he managed to scale the rock walls of the canyon with only one arm, having lost the other at the Battle of Shiloh. Less well known is his later career as a scientist. He served as the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey and argued that the federal distribution of homestead land "might well work in Wisconsin or Illinois" but was inappropriate to the arid West, where a tract near water was more fittingly 80 acres and one without it 2,560 acres. Powell's reports to Congress on the arid lands, containing a daring proposal to encourage self-governance organized by watersheds rather than the straight lines of surveyors, were fervently opposed and suppressed, for he revealed the limits the land placed on growth. The author finds this a useful parable for a time of climate change and lessening availability of water in the West, as Powell's Colorado becomes the nation's "most contested and controlled river, every single drop of it allocated to serve more than 36 million people in seven states." Readers who know of Powell are likely to be sympathetic to Ross' arguments, but much of the main thrust of his book can be found in Donald Worster's A River Running West (2000) and Wallace Stegner's somewhat dated but still iconic Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954). Still, Ross' view through the lens of the unfolding crisis lends Powell and his arguments new relevance.A sturdy but not entirely fresh study for readers interested in the fate of Western water and in the settlement of the West and a good place to start learning about a key figure.
"Ross tells Powell’s story powerfully, sprinkled with quotes from the explorer-geologist’s diary and a feeling of dramatic suspense — will he survive? — even though we know the outcome."
―The Washington Post
"A convincing case for Powell’s legacy as a pioneering conservationist who maintained, ahead of his time and to no avail, that future settlement of the West must take into account the region’s essential aridity."
―The Wall Street Journal
"A bold study of an eco-visionary at a watershed moment in US history."
"Ross's portrait of this complicated figure reveals how 'generations of dueling developers and environmentalists have claimed [Powell] as their guiding star.'"
“[Powell] was — or ought to have become — a Great American Hero up there with the Founding Fathers. Now he has been handsomely rescued from neglect, if not oblivion . . . Powell lived an ungainly life, and John F. Ross has brought order to it in this engaging biography . . . This is a biography, pure and complex, the recounting of an extraordinary life and trailblazing career . . . Ross evokes bone-chilling, palm-wrinkling, stomach-curdling whitewater rapids.”
―The Washington Times
"This interesting volume is a self-contained story of the life of John Wesley Powell, highlighting his many battles, political and otherwise, to bring the value and potential of the American West to the attention of his government and fellow citizens."
―NY Journal of Books
"John Ross has done a spectacular job of research and reportage to bring this book to print.”
―Aspen Daily News
"Ross reminds us of the potential nobility of public service and how government officials who stay true to science are, indeed, heroic."
―Washington Independent Review of Books
"Ross's new biography describes Powell's talents in ethnography, geology, surveying, and mapping, along with his political acuity that helped shape America's federal science and Western land stewardship....In masterly use of primary and secondary sources, Ross makes Powell's wrangling with senators as fascinating as his river expeditions...If you've ever used a topographic map, thank Powell. His legacy deserves more attention, and Ross's biography stands to correct this."
―Library Journal(starred review)
“Ross makes vivid Powell’s adventures, drawing on journals and contemporary accounts, even capturing the drama of vicious battles among scientists vying for federal funds, including Powell’s clashes with senators and bureaucrats, in this fascinating portrait.”
“This enthralling tale by adventure writer Ross focuses on the life of John Wesley Powell (1834–1902), an explorer, geologist, and early proponent of environmental sustainability . . . Ross displays a flair for adventure writing as he recounts Powell’s service with the Union Army during the Civil War (which cost him half an arm) and subsequent work on geological surveys of the West, and he renders Powell’s 1869 expedition of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon in breathtaking detail . . . Ross demonstrates a facility for both human history and natural history, clearly showing why Powell’s ideas matter today.”
“John Wesley Powell was not just a great explorer—he was the great prophet of the arid West whose vision is now coming true in a dusty era of drought and wildfire. This book reminds us to pay attention to savvy people, not to our preferred dreams and delusions—in that sense it couldn’t be more timely.”
―Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature
"Powell was famous in his day as the first Anglo explorer to travel the length of the Colorado River...His voyages down that wild watercourse are the stuff of legend...Ross' view through the lens of the unfolding [climate change] crisis lends Powell and his arguments new relevance.”
"A long overdue look at the meaning of the American West and the critical environmental partnership between land and people. John Ross has enriched our understanding of Powell’s explorations and our turbulent legacy to protect what remains."
―Linda Lear, author of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature
"John Ross offers a stunning re-creation of John Wesley Powell's heroic journey down the Colorado River. It's an epic adventure that forever transformed the American West."
―Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior
Praise for Enduring Courage
“Fast-paced . . . With just the right amount of technical detail, Mr. Ross evocatively captures the excitement of the racetrack, where the driver had to contend with 'gumbo'-thick clouds of dust and gravel thrown up by the wheels. . . . Mr. Ross's book does an excellent job portraying how the reality of air combat differed from the romantic notions, advanced at the time, of a noble contest between modern knights in the sky.”―Wall Street Journal
Praise for War on the Run
“A lively, evocative and at times moving biography . . . Ross [brings] this extraordinary man back to life.”—The Wall Street Journal
“[A] sweeping account . . . a thrilling narrative.”—The Boston Globe
Most people know Maj. John Wesley Powell (1834–1902) as the courageous, one-armed, Civil War veteran who rafted down the Green and Colorado Rivers and through the Grand Canyon in 1869. This amazing feat is just one of Powell's legacies, as Ross's (Enduring Courage) new biography describes Powell's talents in ethnography, geology, surveying, and mapping, along with his political acuity that helped shape America's federal science and Western land stewardship. One of Powell's many strengths was in logistical planning and organization, skills he learned in the army and later applied on various expeditions, in testimony before Congressional committees and when launching new government agencies, such as the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology and the U.S. Geological Survey. In masterly use of primary and secondary sources, Ross makes Powell's wrangling with senators as fascinating as his river expeditions. Powell advocated for the local control of Western water rights to ensure population growth and settlement was sustainable, yet these ideas were ignored by Congress. VERDICT If you've ever used a topographic map, thank Powell. His legacy deserves more attention, and Ross's biography stands to correct this. For all readers, especially lovers of science, history, and adventure.—Margaret Atwater-Singer, Univ. of Evansville Lib., IN