Owning It All, by William Kittredge
This book is certainly a strange one, although by no means a bad one. The author comes from Eastern Oregon and expresses the fundamental ambivalence that the West has often had with government. The author laments the destruction of the population base and economic productivity of the area, and ponders the relationship between people and their government while also musing about the past of the region as well as the question of the dispossession of the native peoples of the area that was involved in the establishment of the redneck population of the area. The author’s deep knowledge and personal experience with rednecks was certainly very interesting and there was a lot here to unpackage concerning the author’s thinking about the life of poor whites in the contemporary West. As is often the case, the writer himself has a somewhat broader understanding of the world than the people he is writing about, and this makes him somewhat distinct from the people he is writing about, which is always a dangerous thing when one writes about outsider cultures where one has the tension between being true to one’s background and between trying to curry favor with an audience that tends not to be very sympathetic to rednecks.
This book of nearly 200 pages long is divided into several chapters that deal with various themes of life in Eastern Oregon and surrounding areas, but mostly Eastern Oregon in the area around Malheur Lake to be precise. The author begins with a melancholy discussion of his lonely home in the region, as well as his memories of the rodeo and local cowboy culture. After that there is a discussion of natural causes and the tense relationship between locals and the creation around them as well as the importance of owning everything and taking full responsibility for one’s upbringing and background. The author talks about leaving home for better opportunities as well as the secrets of redneck life. There is an essay on the problem of drinking and driving as well as the author’s dreams in 1981. An interesting essay on grizzlies follows, as well as a look at the non-tourist state of Yellowstone in winter. The author discusses the legacy of native American religious thought on creation as well as the question of bullets and violence, some discussions about doors to his house, and the problematic question of revenge in local culture and memory.
As someone who has long lived in close proximity to rednecks, I have to say that this book was certainly very interesting to me. I found a lot to appreciate about the author’s approach in seeking to own the entire history that he was an heir to, reflecting upon the violence of the culture he grew up in within itself as well as against others. To be sure, the author did not endorse this violence but he was right to recognize it, to point out that sometimes rednecks faced the problem of getting drunk and committing crimes they had not remembered, and that the fight over land and water rights was one that was far more complex than being simply a matter of intergroup warfare but also the sort of fighting that divided the settlers of Eastern Oregon (and no doubt others) against each other depending on the power and rights one had and sought and the demands one placed on one’s neighbors. The end result is that this book is very readable and very relevant and more than a little bit melancholy as a reflection on the ghosts of Eastern Oregon settlement that linger on to the present day.