In the bitter-cold early winter of 2016, a ragtag bunch of American ranchers – actually, mostly wanna-be ranchers, each with a copy of the U.S. Constitution in their breast pocket, staged a well-armed, though peaceful, takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, a little-known federal bird sanctuary in eastern Oregon, a usually supremely quiet and serene corner of the northwest U.S. In the media frenzy that followed the flag-waving occupation, the participants were called “patriots,” “protesters” and “criminals.” The occupation became known as “The Oregon Standoff” and is the painstakingly and gorgeously considered subject of Anthony McCann’s Shadowlands (2019, Bloomsbury).
As Shadowlands will explain, the Standoff ended in bloodshed (one rancher was killed by the FBI), but most of those tried in U.S. federal courts were acquitted of all charges by American jurors. How? Why? All the action of the book occurs in the months just before and after Donald Trump’s election and feels very much related. Coincidentaly (or not) the ongoing trials and controversy of the Standoff, which was mostly white, overlapped in time with left-wing, multi-racial, anti-Trump protests that erupted in Portland, just across Oregon to the east of Malheur, later that year. The contrasting responses and outcomes are illuminating.
Contrasts abound in Shadowlands.
The Standoff was spied on by the FBI, while deemed “the freest place on earth” by its leaders. The Standoff was intended to “return” the refuge (indeed all federal lands) to its “proper owners,” to “We The People,” though “We the People” did not include the Northern Piute, who had been removed from the land via war, disease and broken U.S. treaties in the previous century. Through twists and turns, right and wrong, left and right, Shadowlands explores the constitutional concept and protections of “dissent.” Where does free speech end and crime start? How important is dissent to us now? Who gets to dissent and who does not?
I admit, I’m fascinated by dissent. Also with the American mind, by myth-made beliefs everywhere, and I can’t recommend this book enough. For you poets out there, it’s beautifully written. (McCann was a poet before turning to non-fiction.) For you history buffs and constitutional scholars, it’s thoroughly researched. For you lovers of the American West (like me), of general American craziness, of heroes and villains, saints and fools, of story, this book is entertaining, edifying, surprising, shocking, and deeply moving.
And good news too…(spoiler alert)…the birds get their refuge back in the end!