B. David Zarley reviews Jackson Ellis’s debut novel, where the American Dream of land and liberty is sacrificed in the name of Progress.
Jackson Ellis, Lords of St. Thomas, (Green Writers Press, 2018), 184 pp.
It is a potent geographic irony – and a trauma for US libertarians – that the American West is dominated by the federal government. This was the Wild West, the synecdochic, capital-W West, the place where American freedom and hope and hardship and wealth and avarice grew and flourished, like a cactus flower, from suffering, genocide and conquest. Yet today, huge tracts of desert and wilderness are military bases, former nuclear testing sites, and protected parklands. Early in 2018, the topic made headlines again when the case against the Bundy family, a clan of ranchers involved in a series of armed confrontations with the US government and its officials over land rights. In the Bundy’s interpretation of the American constitution, the government could not own vast tracts of land, and they were prepared to take up arms to make their case.
The grievances of the Bundy’s Mormon militia seem small in comparison to the imminent domain claims of the recent past, when the rapid expansion of the American West and Southwest necessitated a dramatic terraforming of the landscape. Los Angeles and Las Vegas are well known – abhorred or revered as either consumerist hells or symbols of the implacable march of progress. But even beyond the cinema or the Strip, artificial landscaping is omnipresent. Anything green in the cities of the West was put there by human hands, a caricature of nature in a terrain where huge quantities of water are necessary to turf dry earth and bare rock. To build cities in the desert required the appropriation and re-routing any and all fresh water available.
Among the most obvious options were the rivers running down from the mountains. In a gesture of monumental arrogance, it was decided that the mighty Colorado would be dammed and a reservoir be created. And so it was that, in the midst of the Great Depression, the waters carried from the central Rockies of its eponymous state – the waters that hewed the Grand Canyon from the earth – were arrested by concrete, a symbol of political, economic, and scientific power coalescing to rule nature itself.
Such awesome change – Lake Mead, the body of water created by the dam reaches up to 180km in length – created in geological terms, in the blink of an eye – required awesome sacrifices, and whole communities were placed upon the altar. It is the story of these offerings to progress that Jackson Ellis’s (full disclosure: Ellis was the first editor to give me a chance on book reviewing) Lords of St. Thomas tells.
It is a utilitarian article of faith that the needs of the few are sacrificed for the benefit of the many, we are often only left with the latter’s perspective. Ellis himself lived in Las Vegas, and if one assumes some kind of moral right for places like the Las Vegas Valley to flourish and grow, the creation of Lake Mead, which provides life-sustaining water to millions of people in Nevada, Arizona, and California, would seem justified, almost civilized. The government bought out the people in the water’s path, after all; in history of the conquest of the West, the long, brutal march to the Pacific, the removal of people in Lake Mead’s way was damned near cordial compared to the systematic displacement and slaughter of American Indians, or the reprehensible sacking of Chavez Ravine.
But to Jackson’s fictional Henry Lord, it was no less a slight. His ancestors had come down from Utah – amongst other things the headquarters of Bundy’s Mormon faith; the Patron saints of land wars being Latter Day – and had founded St. Thomas in the blazing sun. The life he had forged in the furnace – home, family, a garage – could not be assailed. Convinced the lake would never lap at his door, Jackson’s ironically named Lord turns down government offers again and again and digs in his heels. He is already living in Hell; what’s high water?
Ellis’s narrative is inspired by the real-life reemergence of St. Thomas from the receding waters of the drought-sapped Lake Mead, and the story is told from the perspective of Henry’s grandson, “Little” Henry, who is shocked to see the foundation of his ancestral home in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Lords of St. Thomas is, in some respects, a coming-of-age story. It is similar to countless other narratives of growing up in a place which no longer exists, with the unique distinction of that being literallyso.
The Lord’s last name is their title and entitlement, and the patriarch’s deeply felt roots and protective phalanx of pride are as American as attitudes can get. He flatly denies that the lake will come for him until the moment it does. It is one of those life-bringing desert releases that haunt the concrete spillways, the specter of flash floods. Lord and his grandson are forced to flee the rapidly sinking remains of St. Thomas via outboard-powered motorboat.
Not so lucky are Little Henry’s grandmother, whom grandfather Henry refused to move with the rest of the cemetery and is thus consigned to a watery rest, or his father, who falls from the Dam he is helping to build. Ellis insists we reflect on these lives sacrificed to progress, drowned in a desert. Yet there are deeper histories drowned by the waters of Lake Mead. If the Lord’s name is a sign of misplaced entitlement, it also speaks of the longer histories of conquest of the West, in the name of progress and of misplaced faith.
Have you ever been submerged underwater? It is not a quiet tomb.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist and book/art critic based in Chicago. He is a contributing news and features writer for A Beautiful Perspective, book critic for Paste Magazine, and art critic for New American Paintings. His work has also been seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Sports Illustrated, Jezebel, VICE, Sports on Earth, Chicago Magazine, and numerous other publications.