The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown by Blaire Briody. September 26, 2017. St. Martin’s Press, 336 p. ISBN: 9781250064929. Int Lvl: AD; Rdg Lvl: AD.
Williston, North Dakota was a sleepy farm town for generations―until the frackers arrived. The oil companies moved into Williston, overtaking the town and setting off a boom that America hadn’t seen since the Gold Rush. Workers from all over the country descended, chasing jobs that promised them six-figure salaries and demanded no prior experience.
But for every person chasing the American dream, there is a darker side―reports of violence and sexual assault skyrocketed, schools overflowed, and housing prices soared. Real estate is such a hot commodity that tent cities popped up, and many workers’ only option was to live out of their cars. Farmers whose families had tended the land for generations watched, powerless, as their fields were bulldozed to make way for one oil rig after another.
Written in the vein Ted Conover and Jon Krakauer, using a mix of first-person adventure and cultural analysis, The New Wild West is the definitive account of what’s happening on the ground and what really happens to a community when the energy industry is allowed to set up in a town with little regulation or oversight―and at what cost.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Strong language, Strong sexual themes, Drugs, Alcohols
Booklist starred (September 1, 2017 (Vol. 114, No. 1))
In June 2013, then 29-year-old journalist Briody quit her job as senior editor for the Fiscal Times in New York and moved to Williston, North Dakota, to embed herself in the “shale oil revolution,” which turned out to be a five-year free-for-all for anyone willing to do whatever it takes to become rich. Many individuals did become incredibly wealthy, but others were torn from their families, sexually assaulted, abducted, or murdered. Briody, winner of the Richard J. Margolis Award for social justice reporting, tells the fascinating stories of people in pursuit of their piece of the oil boom. There’s triumph and heartbreak in this blend of reportage, profiles, and personal essay. The longer Briody is involved in the intricacies of the assignment and in the pain of the people she meets, the more fluid her writing becomes, and she is careful with details, noting, for example, that oil wells are drilled as deep as 3.8 miles, and that when you buy farmland in Williston, you own only what’s on the surface. But Briody’s account offers far more than information about land rights, fracking, supply-and-demand economics, and greed. It reveals the effect the chance to get rich quick, to be worth something, can have on striving Americans.
Kirkus Reviews (July 15, 2017)
The “darker side” of North Dakota’s “shale oil revolution.”In this deeply reported debut, journalist Briody, a former senior editor at the Fiscal Times, tells the stories of roughnecks and other blue-collar workers attracted to high-paying jobs in the oil fields of Williston, North Dakota, a former “sleepy prairie town” where life has been upended by fracking. Most are young men, often refugees from the construction industry collapse. “When he ran out of money and heard about the oil boom, he decided to give it a try,” the author writes about one worker. They come by the thousands, tripling the population, making housing scarce, and taxing police and other services. In 2013, the author became intrigued by the boom and left her Brooklyn apartment to investigate. Staying for months at a time and getting close to many workers, she soon learned that abundant job opportunities exist in Williston alongside bleak living conditions, homelessness, drunkenness, crime, and more. Sadness and uncertainty pervade the new version of the town. “The only thing that’s out here are jobs. That’s it,” said Tom Stakes, an ex-preacher who arrived with $20, drank too much, and left with $1,000. Often divorced and remarried, Cindy Marchello offers the vantage of a hard-bitten woman determined to improve herself but struggling to keep up in the hazardous fields (“I will never be tough enough for this job”) and wary of her fellow workers (85 percent men): “If you smile at them, they think you’ll spread your legs.” The narrative’s accretion of detail is often overwhelming—e.g., in repetitious, fact-packed sections on a pastor’s sheltering of homeless workers in his church—but sometimes highly revealing, as in a lingering image of a trailer smelling like “cigarettes, dust, booze, and stale A/C air.” Stronger editing would have helped, but the book contains solid explanations of shale oil extraction, the lack of government regulation, and the ruinous environmental impacts. An unvarnished, overlong account of the facts behind America’s newfound oil dominance.
About the Author
Blaire Briody is a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Fast Company, Glamour, among others. Her first nonfiction book, The New Wild West, about North Dakota’s oil boom will be published in September 2017. The book was the 2016 finalist for the Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia Journalism School and Harvard University, and she received the Richard J. Margolis Award for social justice journalism in 2014. She graduated from the University of California, Davis with a degree in international relations and now resides in Sonoma County. Her website is www.blairebriody.com.
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