Water is (still) for fightin': A review of Durango

by Annie Dawid

Durango
Gary Hart
246 pages, softcover: $15.95.
Fulcrum, 2012.

Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's seventh novel, Durango, is timely, as many Westerners agonize over drought and the energy industry's use and abuse of water. Hart's novel, however, takes us to another front in the water wars, the decades-long dispute over damming southern Colorado's Animas and La Plata rivers to provide more water for the growing town of Durango. Hart's historically accurate story begins in the pioneer era, as he explains Native-white relations and the role of water in their interactions. For the Utes, the major tribe in the region, "Water and existence could not be separated. Water itself had a spirit." But for the whites, comparatively recent immigrants, "They fought over it and more than a few times killed each other over it. This behavior gave rise to the saying known to all ranchers in the West: 'Whiskey is for drinkin'; water is for fightin'."

More recently, the Utes, who have first rights to the river's water but have largely been denied the use of it, find themselves pitted against pro-development financiers, anti-growth newcomers, and locals trying to do what they think is best for the region. Hart's fictional protagonist, Daniel Sheridan, does his best to bridge these different worlds. A descendant of early settlers, Daniel is haunted by the knowledge that his ancestor, Union Gen. Philip Sheridan, "treated the Western Indians brutally following the (Civil) war." Now the Sheridans ally with the Utes, seeking to redress past wrongs -- hoping that a plan for the dam can be negotiated in a way that aids the Indians while easing tensions with local whites. However, Daniel's honor is besmirched by a scandal created by unscrupulous moneymen, who want to silence his pro-Indian views.

Sheridan is an idealized Western type, a venerable old rancher who drinks whiskey and loves his woman. While Hart makes the story of the conflict over the dam tense and exciting, his characters lack depth. Durango the novel idealizes Durango the town. "Over the years a frontier mystique grew up around Durango as embodying an ideal western small-town-America style of living that was human scale. It was an honest place. It was solid and trustworthy. It was about as close to perfect as a place could get."

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