September 2008

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller

I approached Alexandra Fuller’s The Legend of Colton H. Bryant expecting it to be an environmental tale about Wyoming oil rigs using the story of one young man who died on the job to tell a larger environmental tale. I could not have been more wrong. Fuller, who wrote about her African childhood in the highly regarded Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, certainly does feel strongly about the environmental impact of drilling on the place she now calls home, but this book is about the people who work those rigs and the many ways in which they are taken advantage of by the companies who employ them. Colton Bryant was Wyoming born and bred and loved it there; it was this love that drew him to work the rigs so he could stay close to home. It was also something the companies enjoy about the people of Wyoming; they want workers who will do anything to stay.

By following the life of one man, Fuller personalizes her exploration of oil rig life. Colton was no hero and in a lot of ways he was an exasperating son and friend, but he was also much beloved by those who knew him. He wanted a big truck and some hunting rifles and to have those things he worked on the rigs. Getting married and having a child just meant he needed to work a little harder and he was okay with that -- the job, boring, overwhelming and sometimes terrifying, was the means to having his happily ever after.

Fuller interviewed everyone close to Colton to write the book and it is their recollections that propel the narrative. She explains how things like vacation days and workman’s compensation are not easy to come by. Colton’s father could work for the same company for over thirty years “but they still have him on their books as a part-time laborer, which makes it easier for them to fire him the moment he gets too old or too slow, if he slips.” Bill Bryant, she writes, understands this because to him the terms of his employment are viewed like the weather, “…as something beyond the power of his control.” This is how he lives and what Colton learned and it explains a great deal about why he would be working on a rig in dangerous conditions and wouldn’t complain to anyone about the lack of safety rails. Or why a company representative would feel comfortable making demands from his family, as he lay in a hospital bed barely conscious and dying from a fall on the rig. It was never about Colton to the company he worked for; it was always and only about the oil and how cheaply men like him would get it for them.

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant is mandatory reading if you want to understand what it is like to take a dangerous job because you think it is your only option, because where you live it is largely the only way to obtain a living wage. This isn’t glory writing or some silly reality television show; this is hard living and dying young. It is a beautifully crafted and powerfully told epic about the modern west and brings Colton Bryant the kind of notice his all too ordinary life richly deserved. After Fuller’s book move on to Eric Reece’s Lost Mountain and learn about coal mining in Kentucky; another place and another people the country willfully overlooks as we live the lives our selfishness demands and ignore so many of our fellow Americans who make it all possible.

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller
The Penguin Press
ISBN 9781594201837
224 pages