Are the Great Plains Worth Saving?
Hello, this is Ryan Brooks, an English professor from Canyon, Texas. I’m on your airwaves today to discuss Annie Proulx’s 2002 novel That Old Ace in the Hole, for HPPR’s Radio Readers Book club.
Proulx’s novel focuses on the exploits of a 25-year-old Denver native named Bob Dollar, who moves to the Texas Panhandle as part of his new job scouting hog-farm locations for the Global Pork Rind corporation. When Bob first arrives, he:
“…had no idea he was driving into a region of immeasurable natural complexity that some believed abused beyond saving….He said to the rearview mirror, ‘some flat-assed place.’ Though it seemed he was not so much in a place as confronting the raw material of human use.”
In this passage, Proulx establishes the novel’s central tension, the divide between those who believe the land is worth “saving” and those who do not, or to put this another way, the divide between those who believe the land still has intrinsic worth (including as a home for the people who live there) and those who believe it has worth only as “raw material” for corporate agribusiness, no matter the cost for the land OR for the people who live there.
This conflict drives the plot, as our young protagonist, under the guise of scouting luxury-home locations, tries to ferret out which panhandle farmers and ranchers would be willing to sell out to Global Pork Rind. It also becomes an internal conflict, as Bob begins to fall for the landscape, history, and eccentricity of this strange, isolated part of the country. This tension even shapes how Proulx’s novel was received by reviewers, in the sense that many criticized her for failing to process the raw material of her copious regional research, clear evidence of her own affection for the place, into a streamlined, truly compelling narrative.
These reviewers have a point, but more interesting to me are the questions brought up by the way Proulx resolves this classic conflict between individual landowners and the forces of Big Agriculture. As the novel comes to an end, we find out that an old windmill repairman named Ace Crouch has inherited hundreds of millions of dollars in oil money and plans to buy up as much land as he can to transform the panhandle into a fenceless bison range and nature preserve.
Farmers, ranchers, and anyone interested could become “prairie restoration” homesteaders, entering into a “covenant” in which they “would have to agree to maintain habitat for prairie species….a kind of experiment in community habitat restoration.” This ending inevitably raises the question of whether this plot resolution could represent a real-world resolution to the boom-and-bust cycles that have defined the history of the Panhandle, or whether it would represent merely the latest turn in this cycle.
As scholars Matthew Cella and Alex Hunt have noted, Proulx is alluding here to a controversial, decades-old proposal known as the Buffalo Commons, and your opinion of this ending may very well turn on your opinion of utopian visions like the Commons or on the subtle ways Proulx tweaks this vision.
Personally, I can say that I’m a little tired of fantasies in which enlightened or folksy billionaires rescue us from economic stagnation and environmental destruction; in my version of this fantasy, change would come from below, not from above. Bob Dollar is also skeptical about Ace’s plan, but, as the story comes to a close, it seems he will either go to work selling these new prairie homesteads or open a bookstore in the now potentially thriving town of Woolybucket, Texas. For him, Ace’s vision ultimately represents the opportunity to synthesize his new appreciation for the Great Plains with his desire for meaningful work. To use a phrase that repeats several times in the novel: “it was the break he had been waiting for.”
For HPPR’s Radio Readers Book Club, I’m Ryan Brooks. Thanks for listening!