With my love of westerns such as Lonesome Dove and others that show the Western United States as it really was, rather than romanticizing it, I approached my first Edward Abbey novel, Fire on the Mountain. It takes place much later than typical westerns, as an old rancher fights the changing times on his own terms.
Billy Vogelin Starr spends summers at his grandfather’s ranch in New Mexico. This summer is no different, or is it? He takes the train from his home in Pittsburgh to meet his grandfather and travel to the ranch. He’s looking forward to riding his favorite horse and working the ranch for the summer. In particular, he’s looking forward to seeing John Vogelin’s friend Lee Mackie, whom Billy looks up to.
Things have changed over the winter Billy was gone, however. Lee got married and doesn’t spend as much time hanging around with John any longer, although he’s still a good friend and a strong presence. Unbeknownst to Billy when he first arrives, his grandfather is also being driven off of the land that’s been in his family for generations by the U.S. government.
The introduction to this is slow. Told from Billy’s point of view, we learn about what’s going on the same way he does. It seems like there’s something going on that readers don’t know about. John complains about the soldiers from the nearby missile testing range coming onto his land and destroying it and harming his livestock. He has a valid complaint there. Things take an ominous turn, however, when Billy learns that the government wants John’s land to expand the missile testing range. Lee has already sold out to the government, as have other ranchers in the area. John is the lone hold-out.
First published in 1962, looking at Fire on the Mountain from today’s perspective resonates a bit differently. Reviews of this novel have likened John to Cliven Bundy. I beg to differ. Cliven Bundy did not have land taken from him. He wanted to graze his cattle on government land and not pay the fees. John Vogelin is going to lose the place his family has called home for over 100 years. I think the problem is that people don’t understand the difference I have just pointed out, and look for the easiest comparison that comes to mind.
John does threaten the government officials who come to his ranch, trying to get him to leave. They make generous offer after generous offer and still he refuses. They even come up with a plan for him to stay there and only have to leave during certain testing times and he still refuses. At this point, I think he wanted to die. Billy doesn’t see that, with his youthful perspective, but that’s what it seems like to me. Lee had political aspirations and was well-liked in the area, but his dedication to his friend during this standoff will likely put a crimp in those plans. I think he sees that John is determined to die and has him send Billy home early.
However, that’s not the end of the story. People all these years later would likely be aghast at the thought of putting a 12-year-old on a train by himself to travel cross-country, but it didn’t use to be that big of a deal. It wasn’t that the world was less dangerous, it was that people didn’t talk about it as much. The news was generally a half hour to hour of the day if you had a television. There was no 24-hour news cycle that demanded to keep people watching to improve ratings. The news was considered a community service. All this plays into a setting that is entirely alien to most people today.
I’m reminded of a story by Stephen King where a similar stand-off occurs when the government wants to take land for an extension of the interstate. I believe that it’s good to ask questions about eminent domain laws. This does make the reader think. Set during the Cold War, at the time those missile tests seemed terribly important. I might have had less sympathy for John Vogelin in 1980 than I do today.
Fire on the Mountain is a well-written tale of the dying West. Everything we’ve romanticized about it is dying at this point, and that includes the very land itself. The John Vogelins of the world were disappearing. None of his children were interested in the land, although it seemed like maybe he was holding out hope for Billy to one day take over for him. That wasn’t going to happen, most likely, but that’s what he seemed to be hanging on to. I really enjoyed this perspective and the descriptions and would recommend it.
Categories: Book Reviews