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'Winter Range' -- heartbreaking land


Fifteen years ago, on a cold December morning, a distraught and financially desperate Iowa farmer named Dale Burr walked into the Hills Bank & Trust Company in the tiny town of Hills and shot the bank president in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun. Before he was finished, the 63-year-old Burr had also killed his wife, his neighbor and himself, and the worst agricultural crisis since the Great Depression had reached a bloody and symbolic climax.

Claire Davis may or may not have heard of Dale Burr before she wrote this haunting and remarkable novel, her first, but she knows his type. And she knows something else: The tensions, pressures and despair that can produce such rage still exist in the hearts of the men and women who work the land.

"Winter Range" takes place in a small ranching town in the corner of Montana -- during the middle of a bad winter -- but the story would ring true on a cattle ranch in Texas or a pig farm in Iowa.

A Midwestern native named Ike Parsons has moved west to marry Pattiann, his Montana sweetheart, and he wins the sheriff's election. While looking for a missing child, Parsons stumbles across a ranch full of dead and starving cattle belonging to one Chas Stubblefield, who can no longer afford to feed them. When the sheriff confronts the rancher, Stubblefield responds by shooting a cow dead. "I can shoot that cow because it's mine," he says.

Much to the sheriff's dismay, most of the town -- and his wife, who happens to be Stubblefield's old flame -- agree with the rancher, despite their obvious horror over the starving cattle. They realize (but never express) the truth: Stubblefield's bad luck could also happen to them. The prevailing attitude, and it's dead-on accurate, is, What he does is his business. Who am I to judge?

This is such a promising debut. Davis is a lyrical writer of exceptional power, grace and originality. She writes with authority of nature and farming, and her descriptions of Montana's harsh winters will make you reach for a sweater. She fully understands, and explores, the relationship between men, their land and their livestock (and it's always the men; the Western culture views women like Pattiann as property, not property owners, and Davis knows this, too).

The writing almost, but not quite, compensates for the plot, which is predictable and not much beyond movie-of-the-week fare. The action is as obvious as naming your good guy Parsons and your bad guy Stubblefield. Sooner or later, and everyone knows it, the clock will strike High Noon.

No matter. The book's staggering portrait of Chas Stubblefield, the poor-luck rancher who loses his livestock, then all hope, and then his mind, is a remarkable descent into the false pride and inability to accept help that occurs on our nation's farms yet today. You may not remember the narrative, but Mr. Stubblefield's character will linger far beyond the next harvest. It's a chilling, and prescient, portrayal.

In this, the Good-Time Era, when U.S. farmers rarely even rate a throwaway line in a presidential candidate's stump speech, the country hardly notices that many livestock producers basically work as hired hands on their own land, wholly at the mercy of giant agricultural concerns for the prices they get. When farmers feel no more valuable than cattle, bad things happen. Chas Stubblefield is fiction. Dale Burr wasn't.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at the Des Moines Register.

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