“A rising tide lifts all boats–except for the ones it sinks,” John Sayles writes.
For the accomplished novelist, screenwriter, director, and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, telling stories that uncover neglected histories seems to be a salient undertaking.
Sayles’s latest narrative Yellow Earth details previous “boom” periods on reservation lands and the surrounding areas in North Dakota. Those periods, often defined by economic output and human ingenuity, were marked by destruction. Beaver and buffalo populations were wiped out. The Army Corps of Engineers flooded reservation lands when they constructed a dam. The history of the area serves as a reminder of crimes against Native people and the environment, but also parallels the four stages of the book, “Exploration,” “Stimulation,” “Extraction,” and “Absquatulation.” Sayles suggests that these stages are the sequential and inevitable features of such booms – the booms that hardly lift all boats.
While the people and events within the toponym of Yellow Earth are fabricated, the book is situated inside of the United States – a world where Cheney, “the Halliburton loophole,” and an eventual Dakota Access Pipeline are presupposed. The development of technologies provides newfound access to the shale oil underneath the Bakken.
From there, Sayles’s scrawl achieves a sensational pace. It is the impressive result of a comprehensive portrayal of all four stages and an incredible amount of layering, symbolism, and ideology. There is an urgency to Yellow Earth, and Sayles wastes no words.
In many ways, Yellow Earth reads like a Victorian novel. Themes of industrialization, utilitarianism, and the struggles of the working people make appearances in their twenty-first century forms. There is an interminable band of characters – Leia, who the reader meets at the start of the story, isn’t reintroduced until more than seventy pages later – who are all intertwined in each other’s lives. Sayles’s naming also mirrors a Victorian style. Many characters’ monikers are ironic or delineate their personality traits: Sig Rushmore’s oil salesman techniques and double-speak encapsulate the individualism and politics of Mount Rushmore; Clemson Dollarhide’s last name contradicts the steadfastness in which he denies oil business on his land; Harleigh Killdeer is the Three Nations chairman who buys into a capitalistic ideology, metaphorically trading his land or his horse for an American built, star-spangled “Harleigh-Davidson.”
Of course, the contrast between the mechanisms of an oil boom and those of the reservation, between a society dictated by a “free-market” and one rooted in the traditional Native American way of life, is the book’s cornerstone of conflict. As the members of the reservation try to navigate the oil boom’s opportunity – or to some, its imminent disaster – the other folks residing near Yellow Earth are also coping with the boom.
The result is a deep and tremendous account of rural America. Sayles is brilliant, illustrating the psyche of truckers, farmers, and ranchers with a precision that makes the book suitable for use in history and American studies, similar to his film Matewan and his previous novel A Moment in the Sun. Amongst the most illuminating accounts is Buzzy, a trucker who cries when he listens to Black people singing gospel music, yet refers to them as “colored.” He becomes depressed when a load falls off his truck, killing people; it wasn’t his fault, but he is frightened to do the only job he knows. In the end, he’s a well-intentioned man – not maniacal or flippantly irresponsible – who wants a purpose and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.
About halfway through Sayles’s narrative, the statement on the back cover of the book jacket comes true – “all hell breaks loose.” Men flock to Yellow Earth by the hundreds, outnumbering women ten to one. The stakes are intensified in a place where masculinity is already measured by how much you enjoy the “splatter” that occurs when picking off a prairie dog with a scoped rifle. As a result, Sayles is able to include a startling display of toxic masculinity, which becomes one of the story’s larger themes.
The magic of Yellow Earth is that it doesn’t feel didactic or like an overdone parable. Rather, Sayles fills his work with contradictions. The competing perspectives and ideologies manifest through the characters’ colloquial conversations, inner dialogue, and motivations.
But the destruction brought on by the events of the Bakken boom brings about certain questions. Is there not a manner of life in which the rise of the tide sinks no boats? Did the Native Americans hold the answer to the question of how to provide everyone a purpose, balancing individualism and community? At the heart of Yellow Earth, then, is an interrogation of the differences between animal behavior, such as the cannibalistic nature of prairie dogs, and the “dog eat dog” world of a “free market.” Sayles asks us, how can we all be winners as humans?
By John Sayles
Published January 28, 2020
Keith Contorno is a Chicago-based writer and educator.