Book Review: Great writing and compelling story-telling in John J. Dwyer’s ‘Shortgrass’
Published: June 18th, 2017
In their best stories, the best writers tell us about specific people, places, events and moments in ways that appeal not only to the generation in which they first appear, but also to those who follow.
John J. Dwyer is one of those authors, a successful writer of both fiction (‘Stonewall’) and non-fiction (including a two-part history of the Sooner State, ‘The Oklahomans’). His new book “Shortgrass” is a work of fiction (Bentonville, Arkansas: Oghma Creative Media, Tiree Press, $24,99 hardover, $14.00 softcover, 350 pages), yet it resonates with the power and drama of authentic documentaries, the ear for spoken language of a Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) and the authenticity of unrehearsed “right-place-at-the-right-time” videography.
His efficiency as a writer makes one unaware of a master craftsman’s compelling narrative pull, and nostalgic tugs at the heart.
From the depths of the Depression to the dawn of a war-driven prosperity, he lays out stories of the Roark family (of mixed Irish and German extraction) – pacifist Mennonites who live with love and friendship for neighboring Comanche. After conflict and death, they have come to live in a quiet corner of Oklahoma as more than friends – sisters and brothers in clans of an extended and unique tribe.
Lance is “convicted” in his heart with the anti-war evangelism of his forebears. He knows the stories of bigotry and mistreatment his people faced during the “Great War” of 1914-18, which was in truth a rehearsal for greater carnage to come.
From the model of his heroic and stoic mother, Lance gains deep knowledge of Scripture; because of his father, who battles the bottle, Lance enters the wider world praying to avoid strong liquor and its mind distortions.
Effortlessly a star in high school football, his first love is an Indian girl from a nearby town. Through her, he is first drawn toward the heavens – the soaring skies and stunning sunsets best witnessed from the cockpit of the biplane she flies. Fate brings him into contact with Wiley Post and Will Rogers, deepening his fascinating for aeronautics, even after news of their deaths in Alaska.
Lance becomes a consequential player for the first truly great University of Oklahoma football team. He is soon a campus hero and Norman is his new home. He and Mary Katherine, daughter of an oil titan, become friends, and then more.
As his interest in flying airplanes deepens, he is drawn to the non-interventionist worldview of the greatest pilot of the era, Charles Lindbergh.
A variety of circumstances – entirely plausible in Dwyer’s narrative – bring Lance into brief direct contact with Democratic politicians as varied as Thomas Gore, Alfalfa Bill Murray, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Mary Katherine gives him a glimpse of a wider world, including a conversation with crooner Bing Crosby. Even as she is drawn to the integrity and spiritual strength of Lance’s world, he is pulled, magnetically, toward her father’s worldly ways.
As President Roosevelt maneuvers America to prepare for war and to oppose alternatives to military service for the Mennonites, Lindbergh stands as an influential and, for a time, persuasive voice for Christian pacifists and millions of others of varied or no faith who want to stay separated from humanity’s wicked wars.
Dwyer’s novel covers a decade (1933-43). Even as economic conditions remain dreadful, arguments over America’s place in the world intensify. Debates over whether or not to enter what becomes the Second World War end after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Lance faces soul-rending choices. The reader shares these experiences in a manner that flows naturally from larger events and the inner turmoil of a righteous man.
Dwyer’s book arises from the shared memories of people like us. That is not a reference to ethnicity, but to experience.
‘Shortgrass’ concludes with a few pages of poignant, powerful writing, set in a particular place (the old Roark homestead), recognizable terrain (the plains of far-western Oklahoman) and the sweep of events beyond any one character’s control or understanding.
This ending has nothing – and everything – to do with the Flying Fortresses (B-17s) and other engines of war that will be the center of ‘Mustang,’ Dwyer’s widely-anticipated sequel. There is in the novel’s closing pages no explicit narrative about the evil that men do, yet the power of that evil is palpable in the turmoil Lance feels.
A parting with a beloved horse, a companion for all his life, anticipates the devastation of conflict in the real world.
Lance is destined to depart the dry country, as so many others had to, even as the end comes for decade-long drought that drove his family from that beloved enclave of German and Irish, Comanche and Kiowa peoples. He is leaving the Mennonites behind, to become immersed in the ways of the horror, folly and inhumanity of modern warfare. The ending engaged the heart of this reviewer, as did the words (by Ronald Arthur) and music (by Roger Whittaker) of a lovely ballad from the 1970s.
Across the seas, for the emerging hero Lance, there is a “wicked war a-blazing.” Even if there is no fear of death, “how bitter will be this last farewell.” In the land that is ours, this story is rooted, like that great song was rooted in another place: “For you are beautiful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell.”
A sequel lies ahead – “Mustang” will be released next year. But this book can stand alone. It deserves wide readership and appreciation for one of the best writers in the western United States.
“Shortgrass” is highly recommended.