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Where Do We Look for Value?

Bob Dollar’s experience on the prairie is well worth the read.
Jon Sullivan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Bob Dollar’s experience on the prairie is well worth the read.

Hello, Radio Readers. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas. Up next for our Fall 2022 Read, “Rural Life: Revisited,” is Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, with shifts in perspective from that of the novel we’ve just been talking about, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

Anderson’s novel ends with young George Willard heading west from rural life to the promises of the city; Proulx’s novel opens with a young male character leaving Denver, for, yep, you guessed it, what he hopes are opportunities in the rural ranchlands of the Texas Panhandle.

As a writer, Annie Proulx is celebrated for exhaustive research and immersion in the surroundings of those places she writes about. The acknowledgements that open That Old Ace in the Hole are in themselves benchmarks of the geography, economy, and history of the Panhandle: the Panhandle-Plains, Cimarron Heritage, and the No Man’s Land museums, venders of irrigation equipment and managers of water districts, oil rig workers and grain elevator operators, ranchers and quarter horse breeders, collectors of barbed wire and anvils, and people in places such as Shattuck, Canyon, Cactus, Archer, Higgins, and Pampa. And the novel itself? It’s rich in descriptive detail, the cadences of regional speech, and with memorable Panhandle types, characters, even if their names suggest some level of comedy: Brother Mesquite, Rope Butt, Hugh Dough. But the joke is mostly at the expense of the central character, young Bob Dollar, a college graduate from the city who just can’t seem to get a break.

A moment in the novel that brings this together for me is when Bob Dollar, an earnest stranger in a strange land, tries to follow directions given him by a local. The directions go something like this: “I’m pretty sure you turn right, that’s north, and go three or four or five miles…until you see a big ranch gate with five or six cow skulls nailed on it.” For the reader, these directions continue for almost half a page, and surprise only in failing to include the usual promise that the destination – a structure in the middle of a pasture—is one you just can miss. Because, of course, absent street signs and recognizable landmarks, city-boy Bob Dollar ends up lost; in the heat of day, afoot in a pasture, and approaching heatstroke, he strips himself naked so as to concoct a sunhat of his underwear. He is spared the hat and death by the arrival of the landowner--a comical interaction you just have to read—but what might Bob Dollar have learned from this lost then found near-death experience in a Panhandle pasture?

The old ace in the hole, of the novel’s title, turns out to be an elder of the region with a beautiful vision for preserving the land and all its flora and fauna, providing “decent houses and room for decent people who got some respect for the land.” He sees neither progress nor positive change in selling land to corporate hog farming interests, interests he calls cruel, ugly and unnatural. Will Bob Dollar, minion of Global Pork Rind come to agree? What is his loyalty to his employer worth? Will the integrity of the people and places of the Panhandle mean more to Bob than dollars in his pockets? And for us? Where do we look for value?

For High Plains Public Radio, I’m Jane Holwerda, from Dodge City KS.

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Fall Read 2022: Rural Life Revisited 2022 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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