December Book Round-Up: Minds of the Rural Right

Drilling Roughnecks

Workers on a drill rig. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Erstwhile contributing editor Sara Porterfield compiles a multi-genre reading list of books that explore the minds of white working-class Trump supporters.

Last month’s presidential election left many of us reeling, disoriented in a world and a nation we thought we knew. Inspired by this short NPR article and this 2013 study that found reading fiction increased empathy for people in circumstances different than one’s own, I’ve put together a book list of both fiction and nonfiction works that may help us begin to bridge political, social, and cultural divides and understand the emotions, beliefs, and values of some of those who voted for Mr. Trump. This list only addresses a segment of Trump’s supporters: the white working class, whose support at the polls surprised pundits, pollsters, and voters alike. To narrow that category further, the books suggested here (mostly) address the challenges facing those who live in rural areas where the economy depends on extractive industries such as energy development or logging–industries subject to boom-and-bust cycles with jobs traditionally held by white men. While none of these works are historical monographs, they all draw on the power of history to shape people and places.

Heat & Light, by Jennifer Haigh

This novel, set in rural western Pennsylvania, takes the fictional town of Bakerton and its residents as its focus. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Bakerton is a former coal mining town in the Rust Belt whose residents seem resigned to the poverty left when the coal boom busted. With the arrival of Dark Elephant Energy, however, the town’s fortunes appear to change overnight as the energy company offers landowners fantastic sums for the right to frack for natural gas underneath their property. Author Jennifer Haigh deftly weaves the experiences of the town’s longtime residents, energy industry executives in far-off Houston, and the transient roughnecks who follow Dark Elephant’s drill rigs from state to state, all of whom face an unexpectedly complex world brought on by what seemed to be easy money from the energy industry.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger & Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Hochschild

In this work of nonfiction, sociologist Arlie Hochschild investigates what she calls the “Great Paradox—opposition to federal help from people and places that need it” among Louisiana’s Tea Party supporters. Strangers in Their Own Land was a finalist for this year’s nonfiction National Book Award, illustrating a growing desire among American readers to understand at least part of the origins of today’s fractured political landscape.

The Final Forest: Big Trees, Forks, and the Pacific Northwest, by William Dietrich

Originally published nearly a quarter-century ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Dietrich’s Final Forest remains a compelling investigation into the values and practices governing land use in the American West. In the midst of the spotted owl controversy and the “timber wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dietrich delved into the lives of those dependent on and supportive of logging, an industry iconic to the Pacific Northwest, as well as those who opposed clearcutting old growth forests. The new edition, published in 2010, follows Dietrich’s original actors and details changes in forest policy since the book was first published in 1992. (Richard White’s 1996 essay “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?”, which also addresses the Pacific Northwest “timber wars,” is another worthwhile read.) 

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, by Alexandra Fuller

Though criticized by reviewers for melding fact and fiction, Alexandra Fuller’s portrait of the death of a young oil and gas worker killed by a fall from an oil rig in 2006 deftly exposes the tension between rural Western communities and corporate energy companies. As a boy, Colton Bryant dreamed of a cowboy life, but, as often happens, he was drawn into life as an industrial wage worker on the drill rigs of the Wyoming plains. Though his death would not have occurred had the company running the drill rig installed a safety rail (cost: $2,000), Patterson-UTI Energy refused to compensate Bryant’s family for his death. As Fuller said of Bryant, “Boys like him are the beating hearts at the end of every light switch we flick, every car journey we make, every trigger we pull with our credit cards.” (See also Ray Ring’s excellent reporting on this subject in “Disposable Workers of the Oil and Gas Fields” in a 2007 High Country News article.)

Other Suggestions:

Rock Springs: Stories, by Richard Ford

Roughnecking It: Or, Life in the Overthrust, by Chilton Williamson, Jr.

Hole in the Sky: A Memoir, by William Kittredge

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance (Author’s Note: This recent book has received much criticism, but I believe it’s a useful snapshot of one person’s experience of Appalachian life.)

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