Book review of Holding Fire: A Reckoning with the American West by Bryce Andrews


Bryce Andrews’s new book, “Holding Fire: A Reckoning With the American West,” will be very appealing to a particular audience. He can write beautifully. “Montana is full of ruins,” he begins. “From where I sit now, I can see a cabin collapsing inward, a barn listing like a holed ship, and the last three upright poles of what was once a long hayshed. Craftspeople built these things with hard work and simple tools. Now the builders are gone and the structures are going. It is humbling to consider.”

Andrews, the author of two previous books on the American West, grew up in Seattle but found himself drawn to the higher, drier country across the mountains. Childhood visits to Montana made him want to be a cowboy. After college, he pursued his dream, hiring on with ranches in the shadow of the Rockies.

He modeled himself after the Montana men he worked with. Their matter-of-factness and taciturnity were traits he tried to emulate. Yet he often felt like an impostor. “What right had a young man born and raised in the wet heart of Seattle, I asked myself, to saddle horses under Montana’s endless sky?”

His doubts deepened as he confronted the violence inherent in the life he had chosen. “By the fall of that first year on the Sun” — a ranch — “I understood a truth of ranching. For every birth, a death. For every calf romping in June’s green fields, a carcass cooling somewhere. I had come to believe that getting by in the world required violence. If I wanted to make my living out here, I decided, I would have to kill to eat.”

He learned to hunt. He became proficient, but hunting always troubled him. “My heart beats through my chest every time I draw a bead. The beating, as sympathetic as it is, unsteadies my hand. It doesn’t make me miss, but sometimes tremors of conscience pull the bullet inches off its mark, which is enough to make an animal take longer dying.”

His misgivings focused on a handgun he’d inherited from his grandfather. Hunting was accomplished with long guns, but handguns had human targets. Andrews describes the weapon, a Smith & Wesson revolver, almost lovingly. Its craftsmanship, intricate reliability and directness of purpose engaged his artistic sense. And it connected him to his grandfather and his family’s past.

Yet the gun also evoked thoughts of the violence that produced the modern West. It’s at this point in the story that Andrews will begin to lose part of his audience, while engaging more completely those who stick with him. He becomes consumed with a feeling of responsibility for what people who looked like him did in the past. He learns of the killing of four Salish people by a White game warden in the early 20th century. “That story filled me with pain, anger, and a sense of racial guilt,” he writes. He hears a group from the Salish tribe singing a burial song. “I have heard Bach and Beethoven. I’ve listened to choirs in the cathedrals of Europe. What I heard that morning was more beautiful. It made me want to cry, shout, and beg forgiveness.”

Andrews’s lineage runs back to William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony in the 17th century. Andrews had taken pride in the accomplishments of his distinguished ancestor; now he shudders at what Bradford and the English colonists set in motion. Projecting from them forward, he writes: “His people — my people — will steal land and water from every tribe they meet. They will shove aside or murder anyone who objects to assault and larceny on a continental scale. . . . His offspring — my ancestors — will not only wreak this havoc, but learn to lionize the professional arts of ecological and cultural violence. They will love sod-busters, steel-driving men, loggers, and cowboys.”

Andrews abandons the cowboy calling. “Having ridden the horse, carried my grandfather’s revolver, and stood as the tall unflinching white man in the panorama of American myths and dreams, I know something about what it means to ‘win the West.’ I want no further part in it.”

The second half of the book plays out this epiphany. The cowboy turns conservationist. The revolver remains symbolic, but it … well, this part can’t be told without spoiling the story. The writing continues as lucid as before yet less evocative, on account of the shift in subject matter.

Narcissism comes with the territory of memoirs; modest people don’t bare their souls to the world. And every generation thinks of itself in the superlative: the best, the worst, the most stressed, the most burdened, the most liberated, the most enlightened. “History is an hourglass tapering to us — to you,” Andrews says to his unborn daughter near the end of the book, in a sentiment that is true but misleading. Each of us is the offspring of two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. The fact that all those people were needed to create us must mean that we are really special. But those same ancestors had lots of other offspring; we’re not special at all. If anything, just the opposite. We greatly outnumber our ancestors; we are drops in an ocean of billions.

In a perverse but not uncommon way, it flatters the vanity of Andrews and those of like mind to feel responsible for great evil in the past. It means they matter. Such a feeling, though, is built on a falsehood. None of us are responsible for the evil deeds — or the good deeds — of those who came before us. If Andrews decides to plant trees rather than run cattle, more power to him. And if the planting makes him feel less guilty, a person would be mean-spirited to object. But the past is obdurate; it remains as it was.

Andrews wishes history had been different — that the West had never been “won.” It’s a romantic thought, and it will be common among the many who will like this book. But he offers no hint as to how such a different history might have come about, nor does he reflect that if it had, he wouldn’t be here to appreciate it.

A memoir is history as the writer recalls it. In this case the memoirist essays to have his past and reject it too.

H.W. Brands is the author of many works on American history, including his latest, “The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo and the War for America.”

A Reckoning With the American West

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