Water flows through the heart of Julene Bair’s “The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning” (Viking, 278 pages, $26.95). Bair, a graduate of both the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the UI’s Nonfiction Writing Program, connects her life’s journey to the larger tale of the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas and other Great Plains states. The book beautifully blends personal and societal concerns.
The internal conflict that drives the book — Bair’s family is among the many irrigators whose farming methods contribute to the depletion about which she is deeply worried — is writ large throughout the states where irrigation is common. On the one hand, huge volumes of water are necessary to grow the most profitable crops (a situation exacerbated by various government programs and lax regulation); on the other hand, the aquifer simply cannot survive the current levels of depletion indefinitely. Bair delineates the challenges clearly, and doesn’t shy away from the complications and contradictions in her own life.
“The Ogallala Road” also provides a picture of Bair’s love for and struggles with various people in her life, including a potential mate who reminds her of all that she loves about her original Kansas home; her troubled son; her stubborn father; and her brother who seems to measure his life against their father’s impossible standards.
Bair is honest and unflinching in her portrayal of others, but also in her self-assessment. Hers is a story of missteps and ambiguity, but it also is a story of attempting to define and live by one’s principles, in the hope that individual actions can lead to more sweeping changes.
Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.