My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a tough book to figure out how many stars to give. On the one hand, the subject was very interesting. Ken Ilgunas decides to walk the whole length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Much of it is across private land, so he has to essentially trespass the entire way.
The closest analogue would be Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods, a book about hiking the Appalachian Trail that I adored. This one wasn’t at the same level, though it dealt in similarly interesting subject matter.
I learned a lot about the Keystone XL pipeline and what sort of an impact these pipelines are having on the country and the world. It’s one thing to read about it, but Iglunas’s trek across the length of it was fascinating. He meets a variety of people who give many different opinions on the subject as he goes.
At the same time, however, he clearly has an agenda and does little to hide that fact. I would say I definitely fall on the “environmentalist” side of the spectrum, but I do like to have a balanced presentation on both sides of an argument, and I felt like this novel unjustly slights the pro-pipeline side. At the same time, it’s not like I’ve done extensive research into the matter, so perhaps my feeling on this is wrong. But the overarching impression you get from the book is that there are almost no solid arguments in favor of the pipeline other than money. When the author admits he’s making the trek to try to convince people against the pipeline, it becomes hard to entirely trust everything he’s saying.
There’s also the simple fact that he’s not as accomplished of a writer as Bryson. (Though you can’t completely hold that against him. Bryson’s got a slew of novels under his belt and tons of experience.) But there were times in the book where I felt the descriptions simply became too focused on sounding good or “literary” as opposed to simply describing things well. It’s the difference between a great story and one that feels like it’s trying to hard to be great. The language got in the way of the ideas from time to time, and that’s a problem.
But as far as a launching point to discuss the issues at hand in oil use and the environment, I see this working very well. More than that, it made me think a lot about how the firsthand impressions we can get of a thing or a place or a group of people can be wildly inaccurate. For me, I thought about my time as a missionary for the LDS church. I lived in several cities in Germany for about 6 months each, and when I left each of those cities, I felt like I knew them well. However, now that I see missionaries come and go through my town in 6 months, I feel like there’s no way they could possibly understand all the nuances of the place. Even after you’ve lived in an area for years, you still just see a slice of that area, a fact I’m reminded of when I speak with other people in my town about what life is like for them.
And Ilgunas tries to make conclusions about people and towns and entire states based on a single walk through that state. I don’t think it can be done. It’s impossible to draw conclusions about a region based on a few encounters. It’s unfair to the region to judge it based on some dogs or some unfriendly people. And that’s what I kept thinking of as I read the book.
In any case, it was a thought provoking book, and it’s one of the books my library has chosen for its “On Our Minds” programming this year. I think it provides plenty of fodder for topics of discussion, and so in the end I bumped the rating up from three stars to four for that alone. It’s a fast read, and interesting. Well-written and it flows well. There were just significant parts I wish had been improved.