Ogallala memoir features mashup of love and water conservation

You might expect a book with a subtitle like “A Memoir of Love and Reckoning” to be a love story.

OgallalaJulene Bair’s “The Ogallala Road” is indeed a love story but not necessarily one between a woman and a man.

Bair leads readers to believe this set-up by beginning her story with a description of how she fell in love with a Kansas rancher despite spending her life running away from the Plains and her family’s farm.

Mini Spoiler Alert: “The Ogallala Road” does not lead to this rancher but it does reveal Bair’s love for Kansas and, interestingly, the water that runs beneath it: the Ogallala Aquifer, a sprawling underwater ocean once considered the most plentiful source of groundwater in the nation.

It’s a weird matchup that Bair marries in her prose. Hers is a story about love, loss, parenting, farming and, weirdly, water conservation. Oh, and Native American history. And organic farming.

I both loved and hated this memoir which is a sure sign of a good read. Bair will make you think.

I wasn’t particularly enamored with Bair; as the protagonist, she’s kind of, well, stuck-up (her description of a Tupperware party is insulting to anyone who once worked in the direct sales industry and I wasn’t very impressed with her public position on water conservation after the fact), though I certainly admire her independence. I picked up her book after listening to her speak at last year’s Printer’s Row Lit Fest, where she kindly signed it for me: “Thanks for taking a few steps doesn’t the Ogallala Road with me!” I think maybe she reminds me of me because I can be sort of cool and aloof before you get to know me, too.

And I found her descriptions of anything, really, to go on and on (I’m sorry I don’t care how he parted his hair today). But I must admit, her writing will transport readers. The way she describes the vistas in Kansas made me want to visit the place which is saying something for a girl who knows very well how North Dakota (and Iowa and Nebraska and most of southern Illinois) goes on mile after boring mile.

She effectively manages to explain how a piece of property can have a hold on a farmer and a whole family. And I really loved how she wove history, politics and farming practices into the story. A quick look on Amazon reveals some readers don’t like this juxtaposition, but I think it’s a clever way to teach concepts: Tell stories. “The Ogallala Road” tells a much bigger story through the lens of a personal one.

In the end, I felt a little like I do when I hear the news from Lake Wobegon, which is sort of appropriate for a Midwestern storyteller. The story began in one place, took a few necessary detours and ended in an unexpected, but thoroughly satisfying, way.


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