Another kind of hero

by Francisco Tharp

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant
Alexandra Fuller
202 pages, hardcover: $23.95.
Penguin Press, 2008.

On Valentine's night in 2006, Colton Bryant fell to his death off a gas rig in the snowy, windswept vastness of Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin. To most of us, his death was as anonymous as his life; he was just another roughneck chasing big paychecks in dangerous conditions. But in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, Alexandra Fuller brings this goofy, blue-eyed, hard-working "Wyoming boy‚" to life, using fireside-style storytelling and creating vivid cameos of Colton's friends and family.

As in her best-selling debut memoir Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, Fuller's prose in The Legend masterfully captures the humor, wisdom and distinctive voices of people who live with both feet on the ground. As we follow Colton from childhood to manhood, he embodies the collision of the romantic Old West with a harsh new millennium. He grew up breaking wild horses, tracking elk through the Wind River Range, and chasing rodeos with "a tin of Copenhagen on the dash, a .22 across his lap.‚" Then he found himself working two-week blocks of 12-hour shifts 100 miles from home to support his wife, two children and a world gluttonous for energy. The work strains his marriage and his heart, but it's the only work he knows, and in Wyoming's booming energy economy, the only work that pays.

As Fuller notes at the beginning, The Legend is "a Western with a full cast of gun-toting boy heroes from the outskirts of town and city-shoddy villains from the head office. ... But like all Westerns, this story is a tragedy before it even starts because there was never a way for anyone to win against all the odds out here.‚" Colton can't be separated from Wyoming, "the land that grew him,‚" and the landscape itself develops into one of the book's most essential characters. "And the great high plains themselves,‚" writes Fuller, "dry as the grave in these drought years, give more of an impression of open sea than of anything you could dig a spade into. A beautiful drowning dryness of oil.”

In April 2007, senior editor Ray Ring introduced Bryant to HCN readers in his special report “Death in the Energy Fields,” an award-winning investigation of the accidents that kill and maim dozens of oil and gas workers each year. The Legend picks up where Ring left off, fully fleshing out the details of one of the human sacrifices the West has made to the corporate energy machine.

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