An Appreciation of Michael McGarrity’s American West Trilogy and its concluding volume,
The Last Ranch
By Robert L. Patten
Senior Research Fellow, Institute of English Studies,
School of Advanced Study, University of London
Michael McGarrity’s trilogy of the New American West tells the epic story of a large part of the US that never makes it into our national imaginary. Tied not to northern Europe but to the Iberian peninsula and through Mexico up the Rio Grande to the Sangre de Cristos, the southern eruption of the Rocky Mountains, this vast West comprising parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah came to be part of the United States by treaties between 1836 and 1848. McGarrity’s history begins at the close of the Civil War, when Yankees and Rebels, cowboys and Indians, traders and gunslingers, rode westward to scrape out livings on the hotly contested high deserts watered by the snows of the upper Rockies.
John Kerney, veteran of the Civil and Indian wars, opens this series, scrabbling a living in West Texas, and thereafter in the Tularosa basin where the struggle for a sustainable living continues. Full circle, the end of the third volume sees John’s great grandson, Kevin, returning from Vietnam to face the new challenges of domestic life. In between the four generations of Kerney men and women interact with a hard, harsh, withholding, achingly beautiful and deadly, land, and its similarly diversified inhabitants--ranchers, outlaws, raiders, and settlers.
The land anchors these stories; its vistas and bosky sanctuaries beautifully captured by the paper wrapper painting of the Kerney ranch by Peter de La Fuente, grandson of Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd, artists who themselves left the ground of Valley Forge Pennsylvania to settle in the shadow of the Sacramento Mountains.
The amazing thing about these novels is that they portray, in the lead figures, a persistent, tough, sometime amoral, goodness that is captivating. They try to survive without doing violence to others or the land; and their dying, while in a long view inevitable, is in the close-up of their difficult and courageous efforts to subsist, crushing. I quit the first volume twice, because I too much loved the strength and honesty of the characters to see them pass.
This remote land is not exempt from global warfare. That’s another way in which McGarrity understands the paradox of Western settlement: Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, make men’s fortunes and take their lives with inescapable fatality. The railroad comes to transport food and provisions for troops, whether stationed in the old forts that dotted the frontier, or in the growing cities housing major bases. And after World War II, the largest and most toxic land grab of all is conducted with ruthless efficiency by the government. White Sands Proving Grounds takes up 3,200 square miles of southern New Mexico: turning towns into cities, ranches into missile ranges, and the clear air of the high desert into an atmosphere poisoned by the exhalations of the first atomic bomb.
What, then, distinguishes McGarrity’s trilogy from other great works about this part of the world, such as Paul Horgan’s Pulitzer and Bancroft prize-winning biography of the Rio Grande and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop? This trilogy captures sympathetically both the characters and sensations of the region Cather so sharply depicts and the clashes among Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo cultures that through often violent and fiercely tribal ways together shaped and exploited the riverine land. All who came to these lands believed they belonged to them—90% of the Mexicans living in the region when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1836 chose to become American citizens.
All that scope, all that history, all that space, is encompassed in McGarrity’s narrative. But it is discovered, experienced, and wrestled with by characters distinctive in their style, passions, and outcomes. Perhaps most wrenching is Patrick Kerney (1875-1964), orphaned, lonely, bitter, determined, who makes and loses his beloved ranch and his family, and yet modulates in his later years into a nearly silent witness to a century’s transformations. He manages not to hang onto anything much, but those with whom he lives and works are as loving and heroic as, down deep, he is. No one is better drawn or more moving than his wife Emma; her efforts to survive, provide a home and education for her sons, and understand her dogged, absent husband elevate her to the pantheon of strong women who shaped the West as much, sometimes more, than their men.
Patrick’s son Matthew dominates the second and third volumes. Injured in Sicily during World War II, he arrives home only to have his land seized, a crazed convict seek to kill him, a marriage go sour, and a young son materialize who somehow has to be nurtured and raised. He loses often, but never gives up. This third volume, The Last Ranch, is the most mellow and domestic of the trilogy, though it is set during the cruelest time the West has known, the atomic era. A lot of it is concerned with small-scale events: housing, small-time ranching, rodeos, education, growing up and growing old. That era is one I know firsthand. Every detail of McGarrity’s reconstruction of post-war life is perfectly on pitch. The muted gains and set-backs of the postwar decades are rendered in a precise, unadorned prose that resonates deeply with the feel of those times.
Time after time, in the midst of this historical reconstruction, McGarrity shocks. Events slash the fabric of lives and dreams like lightning igniting forest fires. Time after time people have to rebuild their loves and lives, or lose one or both. Unlike fiction, history doesn’t always reward winners or punish the guilty. McGarrity knows this, writes this unconsoling truth. So the background of millennia of occupation and abandonment, and the foreground of individual journeys, merge in a comprehensive and hugely moving panorama of a great part of America.
It’s a story that hasn’t been told enough, isn’t understood by its own denizens, much less those north and east of the Mississippi, and is utterly fundamental to any conversation we might have nationally about our heritage, our purple mountains’ majesty, the scarcity of fruited plains, and the resolute destructive and creative builders of a mestizo civilization comprising ranches, minerals, grand parks, the theft and redirection of water, Las Vegas NM and Las Vegas NV, Hollywood and Santa Fe.
The McGarrity trilogy achieves an encompassing history real, heart-stopping, and harshly beautiful. For its achievement it should be a contender for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.