Oh my. I have difficulty beginning this review. I found this book very moving and beautiful. I’m glad to have found such joy in Edward Abbey this time around; I was disappointed in Black Sun, but I knew he had this in him.
Abbey tells us that this story was “inspired by an event that took place in our country not many years ago” but is fictional in its particulars. Billy Vogelin Starr has just arrived in southern New Mexico to spend another summer with his grandfather, on the ranch that has been in Grandfather’s family since the beginning. Billy is twelve, and he loves the land, the terrain, the work, the ranch, and his grandfather very much; they move something deep inside him. He only gets to be a cowboy for three months a year, but he takes this time seriously. He’s also very excited to see his friend Lee again; Lee is handsome, charismatic, a real cowboy, his grandfather’s best friend, and Billy’s hero. This year things are different, however; the United States government intends to take the Box V ranch away. The story is, they need it for national security. We’re fighting the Soviets, at least in theory and in spirit, and the land is needed for rocket testing (thus explaining the cover image, if you can see it that clearly). Grandfather’s response is that his land is not for sale. He was born here; his daddy died here, and he’ll die here, too. If he has to do battle to retain his right to his land, he’s willing. And of course, Billy wants to be right by Grandfather’s side.
A short book at under 200 pages, Fire on the Mountain is incredibly powerful. In few words – just like a cowboy – Abbey teaches his reader about old men like John Vogelin, whose tie to the land and to an older way of life is stubborn. The descriptions of the natural phenomena of Southern New Mexico are awesome, and I challenge you to resist respecting Grandfather’s final stand. Not for nothing is Abbey called (by Larry McMurtry) “the Thoreau of the American West.” This is a coming-of-age story for Billy Vogelin Starr, whose twelfth summer sees drama that will change his world forever; it’s also a lovely evocation of the beauty and power of nature, and the story of the classic, iconoclastic, Western loner resisting a world of change. An incredibly powerful and touching book, beautifully written, irresistible, exhibiting the greatness that I expect from Edward Abbey. More, please.