Review: Finding Self in the Bakken North Dakota Oil Boom

A few years ago, during the darkest day of the Quarterly, I wondered whether we might pivot the entire project toward something I called (in my cloudiest of heads) the North Dakota Review. Needless to say this project never happened (and probably for the best), but North Dakota Quarterly has remained steadfast in its interest in reviews of all kinds. In fact, book reviews have been part of the Quarterly since its earliest years and our current book review editor, Sharon Carson, has done a wonderful job organizing, cultivating, and editing reviews.

This week, Richard Rothaus offers a review of two recent book with a focus on the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota. Rothaus is both deeply familiar with the Bakken as well as with the ever expanding body of Bakken related literature. For Rothaus, the Bakken represents more than just a place with oil, and instead forms a backdrop to a diverse range of personal, political, and economic reflections that speak to the character of life in the US (and, maybe, the world). Check out his review below.

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.  

 

Finding Self in the Bakken North Dakota Oil Boom

Sierra Crane Murdoch. Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder; and a Womans Search for Justice in Indian Country. New York, Random House, 2021. Pp. 379, $18.00 pb.

Michael Patrick F. Smith. The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. New York, Viking, 2021. Pp. 468, $29.00 hb.

The Bakken shale oil boom quickly transformed North Dakota from 2006 to 2015, with the gloriously chaotic peak of fracking and extraction hitting in 2012. North Dakota had seen smaller oil booms before, but there had been nothing like the frenzy that fracking brought. This was driven both by the scale of the oil reserves available in the Bakken shale, previously unharvestable without fracking technology, and also by the complexity of fracking, which in the early days required a tremendous number of workers. I had the privilege of being in North Dakota to witness the Bakken boom firsthand. In the first half of the Bakken boom, right up to peak, I was a self-employed archaeological contractor. I tried to avoid the chaos, but sometimes the money was just too good to resist spending some time sleeping in the truck—or an expensive hotel room, if I was lucky—surveying gravel pits or whatever the task was. Later, I spent five years with the University of North Dakota Man Camp Project, and we spent weeks in the Bakken interviewing workers and documenting the housing they lived in. I would never call myself a Bakken insider, as my mortgage and life never depended on whether or not I was successful there, but it is fair to say the Bakken boom paid a years worth of bills and occupied probably close to a year of my life. I am comfortable saying I can review Bakken books with the eyes of someone who has really been there.

The Bakken boom has spawned a small bookshelf. The University of North Dakota Man Camp Project has produced academic works, including The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape by William Caraher and Bret Weber (North Dakota State University Press, 2017); The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western NorthDakota edited by William Caraher and Kyle Conway (The Digital Press @ UND, 2016); and Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018 edited by Kyle Conway (The Digital Press @ UND, 2020). Journalistic accounts have appeared in due course. Maya Raos book Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier (Public Affairs, 2018) is a collection of episodic, quick-take impressions that are slightly sensationalized. Blaire Brody’s book The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (St. Martins Press, 2017) focuses on the dark side of the Bakken boom, retreading much of what has been covered in the media. There is also a growing body of essays, fiction, and poetry about the Bakken boom, including Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America by Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout (Ice Cube Press 2016), which I reviewed in the North Dakota Quarterly in 2017. Much of the fiction of late has taken the form of romance novels, usually about returning home, as well as mystery and terrorism thrillers, many of them self-published. I have failed to wade fully into these.

Deeply personal accounts are less frequent. Lisa Peter’s Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil (Minnesota State Historical Society Press, 2014) has the place of honor for being the first such book to appear. Peters, a city-dwelling environmentalist, struggled with reaping the benefit of tracked oil from her family land in North Dakota. The Bakken boom is relatively fresh and memoirs will still appear, no doubt, but the addition of Sierra Crane Murdoch’s Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Womans Search for Justice in Indian Country and Michael Patrick F. Smith’s The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown are welcome additions of personal accounts. Smith writes of his nearly one year working on the oil fields and offers readers the clearest account of some of the human tolls and triumphs of the Bakken boom. Murdoch writes of her experiences shadowing Lissa Yellow Bird, who becomes obsessed with tracking a Bakken murder as part of her attempt to return to home. While less clearly a personal account, Murdoch sometimes wanders so close to ghostwriting Yellow Birds thoughts that I think of the book in this way.

The lack of a Bakken-boom-specific culture is perhaps worth some reflection. There are no famed Bakken songs. Until Smith, there was no Bakken epic told in someone’s own words. Smith, a musician, mentions this: “[Oil] Boomers had no voice, not just political, which is obvious, but to sing along with, which is more possibly more important” (105). Perhaps this is no surprise; between the grueling struggle to survive and the twelve-hour-plus work shifts, ten days on (minimum) for most oil-field hands, life had no time for culture and creation, and many companies designed things this way. Smiths book stands out for this reason: not only is it patient and elegant, it is the only account we have from a Bakken worker. Murdoch, whose book perhaps has more breadth, has the concomitant lack of depth Smith brings to the field. Murdochs work as an investigative journalist tied her to Lissa Yellow Bird, who, coming off a long and brutal run of substance abuse and family troubles, is attempting a return to her Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara family roots, with home in the heart of the Bakken boom. Yellow Bird becomes deeply involved in the search for the murdered Kristopher Clarke, and Murdoch follows her. Smith’s book, drawing on his eight and half months working in the oil fields, is a more nuanced and reflective account about his search for income as well as himself.

Murdoch guides the reader through the complications of Yellow Birds life: childhood, young adulthood, troubled relationships (including those with her children), substance abuse, sex work, and rebirth as a clean and sober crusader for the missing and murdered. She recounts the nearly miraculous access Yellow Bird gave her, including hundreds of emails, files, and text messages. The power of the book comes from Murdoch’s intimate relationship with Yellow Bird coupled with the rather unprecedented amount of documentation. Murdoch has invented a new style of electronic-age biography, and she is able to recount minute details of Yellow Bird’s actions with the corroborating evidence biographers of the past would have dreamed of. Murdoch is able to follow Yellow Bird as she reinvents herself as crusader, although some more analysis of Yellow Bird’s journey might have been welcomed.

What befuddles me is why Murdoch chose to expand her book to cover other topics, such as the alleged corruption of Tex G. Hall, the Mandan-Hidatsa Chairman during much of the Bakken boom. Hall was indeed oddly close to James Hendrickson, who was charged with the murder-for-hire of Kristopher Clarke. Hall vacationed with Hendrickson and his wife in Hawaii, and his daughter had a child by Hendrickson. But this is old news that was reported almost a decade ago, and we leave Murdoch’s book with the alleged corruption issues as murky as ever. This simple reportage is the major weakness of Murdoch’s book. There is limited analysis or introspection in the book, and Murdoch writes without much nuanced questioning of her sources. Murdoch even explains, in the Authors Note and elsewhere, her journalistic techniques in telling Yellow Bird’s story. Missing, however, is empathy for individuals outside of Yellow Bird’s point of view, and the Bakken journalistic tropes come leaping through in places. Oil is usually bad, with only an occasional nod to its uneven role in development for the impoverished Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation. All oil workers are bad, or at the very least sad. Murdoch writes of Yellow Bird telling the story of oil workers lining up in the street in Williston to buy grilled cheese sandwiches from the back of a pickup truck for five dollars. Yellow Bird is struck by the cost because a loaf of bread only costs a dollar and sixteen slices of cheese costs just three dollars. In the book, these men fanning themselves with dollar bills while waiting to overpay for a sandwich is a mark of the absurdity of the Bakken boom, a “gross fact” (193). Missing is the empathy to understand what is going on; at the height of the Bakken boom, anyone on a schedule or a budget was eating gas station food and then paying both the gastrointestinal and psychological toll for doing so. No one had the time to endure the hour-long wait in line at McDonalds. Finding a reasonably priced, simple sandwich elsewhere? Impossible. Moreover, a loaf of bread has not cost a dollar in a long time, and certainly neither bread not cheese could be found at those prices in Williston at the time. For the reader who has never done more than helicoptered into a boomtown, this story is indeed absurd. But for those who have spent more time in one, it is rather touching to hear of workers trying to get a simple sandwich that reminds them of home. Murdoch does not provide this context.

This pattern is what shakes the book. If Yellow Bird had been presented solely as Yellow Bird’s story, this would have not have been an issue. But as Murdoch launches into journalist mode, readers assume she will add context or poke at the sources. Questions lingered in my mind as Murdoch wove an intricate tale of how Yellow Bird assumed false identities, distributed anonymous flyers about individuals in the case, and generally dealt in partial truths to move her investigation along, including raising some serious ethical questions by becoming close to the people involved in the case and manipulating their actions. Murdoch is little interested in wondering where she herself fits into the incredible web of deceptions. This manifests itself, unfortunately, in the very premise of the book: the search for Kristopher Clarke.

The reality is, and I apologize for the spoiler: Yellow Bird did not find the physical body of Kristopher Clarke, nor is the evidence compelling that her work led to the conviction of James Hendrickson in the murder-for-hire scheme, which relied almost entirely on confessions. Murdoch’s writing about these issues made me uncomfortable in places. At the trial, the murderers stated that they buried Clarke in Badlands State Park, though his body has not been found. The best we get is an account of Yellow Bird visiting the site where the murderer claimed he buried him and a declaration that a hole under a tree was a burial place. Readers can place as much credence in that claim as they wish. I have worked on archaeological surveys with Native American partners where we have identified burials not by digging and finding bones, but by the pronouncement of a location by physical inspection by a respected elder. I am fine with switching between worldview perspectives. But this is where, it seems to me, Yellow Bird collapses. Murdoch does not choose whether she is writing from the perspective of an investigative journalist or from Yellow Bird’s spiritual view. In the end, we end up at a spot in the Badlands with the discovery of a grave and no way to tell what Murdoch intends. Does she mean the body is physically there in the way secular criminal investigators would accept for a murder trial, or does she mean the spirits are telling Yellow Bird that the body is there? I am fine with either, but the book needs to choose one, or at least provide an explanation.

Yellow Bird’s journey from troubled individual to nationally respected helper is more than worthy of attention, and the book shines where it highlights Yellow Bird’s uncanny talent for working with individuals. Yellow Bird can be a spectacular counselor and social worker, like when she sits with her son Obie and his partner Caitlin, guiding them through their troubles. Yellow Bird and her followers, the Sahnish Scouts, always out there searching, have built a powerful legacy. Sometimes they find the missing, sometimes they do not, but they listen and take action when others do not. I ended up rereading Yellow Bird, ignoring the parts of the book not about her life and treating it instead as a biography written by a very close friend. Using that method, Yellow Bird shone.

Smith’s The Good Hand is the only writing coming out of the Bakken boom to date by someone who worked in the oil fields for more than a short period. Smiths experience rings true with many of the young men we met and interviewed through the University of North Dakota Man Camp Project: he had no clear career path, generally enjoyed hard work, and did not have the advanced training needed for the higher-paying oil field jobs but arrived ready to learn and work his way up. “We aren’treaching for the brass ring; were hustling just to get in the game” (55), Smith says. Smith’s book is also successful in counterbalancing the myth of the feral man, which is prevalent not just in writings about oil fields by outsiders (it appears in Yellow Bird), but also in communities around the oil fields and especially with journalists looking for a story. The feral man is dangerous; he cannot be trusted in society, nor near woman and children, and he must be isolated and demonized lest he be allowed to mix. A moments reflection reveals that with huge influxes of transient workforces like the Bakken boom there are, of course, some actual feral men, but the majority of the workers are just there to make some money and find meaningful employment and maybe a path in life, as was Smith. Smith is exceptional in many ways, including his ability to communicate his experiences. But he also came from New York, unlike so many of the workers who came from Idaho, Wyoming, Texas, and other places where the recession had wiped out their jobs, but not their mortgages.

Because he was an actual worker searching for his own identity, Smith built relationships that allow readers to see not just what was happening in his life, but also what was happening in the lives of others like him in the Bakken. Smith headed west looking not just for a job, but also for meaning in his life after a rough childhood in a broken and sometimes abusive family, not unlike Lissa Yellow Bird. He begins his book by talking about the father wound and the Williston hello: “What kind of work you do? Man, my dad whipped my ass.” (27). For Smith, this father wound carries through so much of the outer appearance of young men in the Bakken boom: swagger, trucks, and more trucks. As the men search for their manhood, they are also searching for father figures and brotherhood through the oil work. Smith succinctly sums up his goal for work: “It will grow me up. I want to grow the fuck up” (116). Smith’s book has empathy that an outsider to the father wound and the oil work would find hard to muster. We meet characters who are rough, unlikable, and make terrible choices, yet by the end, through abundant good humor, Smith shows us their humanity.

One of Smith’s first encounters in Williston is Champ, who runs a flophouse that Smith finds when he grows weary of living in his truck. Smith gets a mattress in a living room for $450 a month. Champ appears to be thoroughly distasteful character. He constantly squeezes more people into the flophouse, threatens evictions when anyone complains, and has a mean temper. But Smith slowly reveals the humanity of Champ: his drinking problem and his difficult financial situation, with a mortgage back home he cannot pay. No readers will want to live at Champ’s place and he would likely be a challenging friend, but Smith’s patience in learning Champ’s story promotes Champ from predatory, feral “I’m a fucking slumlord” (159) to troubled man with financial problems doing the best he can. Smith does this again and again with other characters in the book. I do not want to reveal too much, but the redemption of the Wildebeest relies on a near biblical backstory of suffering, and tears would dot my page to write of Huck.

The strength of Smith’s book relies on his knack for meeting people where they are, something he can do because of where he has been. Because the oil field attracts rough people, Smith has to wrestle with the depths of his empathy and how far he should go. He learns that some of his friends have flaws that range from casual racism to past heinous criminal acts: “How do you love men you disagree with so violently on the ethical and moral questions that you think define you? Later the questions I pose will kind of invert themselves, as I turn them toward the world. Because how do you not allow yourself to love people you disagree with? Wouldn’t that be a sign of real cowardice?” (175).

Smith’s book also acts an excellent primer on how the oil field works, from trucking to fracking to extraction. He starts as a greenhorn in a trucking firm, not even driving, just riding along to move unbelievably heavy and dangerous equipment as the workers disassemble and reassemble rigs. The job teaches him how the process works, frequently through trial and error, as there is no handholding. It is on the worksite that Smith finds most of his brotherhood, from his first days of being yelled at for attempting things more experienced men can risk but he cannot, to the father figure boss of Bobby Lee who runs the crews with an enviable efficiency. Starting at rock bottom and living in an awful flophouse, Smith is hardly naive. He is aware of the dark side of the Bakken boom, and he sees many things journalists or university investigators would never glimpse. He also is quite aware of what the companies are doing and who is using whom. Smith can see even more: that men live within parameters they cannot control, they need something to do, and there is still a value in hard work within the brotherhood.

And as for Smith’s pursuit of the American Dream of making money in the Bakken? Well, after his thirty-four weeks of dangerous hard work and paying $450 to $900 per month in rent, he made $30,000. Smith describes his own stunted fiscal sense, shared by many of his Bakken compatriots, which he traces back to his father, the accountant who could not balance a checkbook. The obsession with money by the oil workers does not translate to expert fiscal acumen, which manifests itself in tales such as Ernie and Jessie, who wander homeless with a useless $370 paper check they have no way to cash until Smith, taking pity on them, cashes it for them. From sleeping in his truck and nearly begging for a job, Smith grows to working days in temperatures below thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, crunching snow and moving steel while wondering at the sun dogs with his brothers: “‘Well, you can go home tonight and know you are one of the toughest motherfuckers on the planet,’ Huck finally says to me. ‘Ain’t just anybody on earth has worked a day like we jus’ did. That’s something to be proud of.’… I knew then that it had been a special day. But it wasn’t until several years later … that I would remember it, somehow, as one of the best days of my life” (400). Smith did not leave rich, but he became a “Good Hand” and found his calling as a writer. And, since a calling was part of what he went west for, the journey was a success for him, and the reader, too.

~

Richard M. Rothaus is an archaeologist, historian, as well as Dean at Central Michigan University. With his Ohio State University PhD in hand, he explores the material culture of people just trying to live in the landscapes where they have found themselves.

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