All the Land to Hold Us by Rick Bass is a saga, a metaphor, a love story, and a man in conflict with nature tale. In the 1960’s a young couple have a burning love and child. They plunder the desert and salt flats for oil, treasure, past lives only to leave it barren and bereft of life. Just as they sap the land around them, the land has its revenge by collapsing and eventually swallowing them up as they uncover those earlier swallowed victims. It is a circle, dust to dust. And that’s just one story in this magnificent metaphor of love and life in the desert.
“A strange and powerful landscape summons strange and powerful happenings” trumpets the tone of this novel as those who venture into this land with dreams and aspirations find them altered not because of their own failings or shortsightedness, but because of the power of the land, which is why it always man in conflict with nature with self and others tagging along in the currents of the river or the shifting of the sand or the reforming of the salt lakes. The inhabitants of Book I are the salt of the earth. A love story of the 60’s and one of the 30’s gone south are reignited in the 70’s.
Natural anomalies abound: an elephant in the desert, a huge catfish in a small pool, the land constantly collapsing as oil and gas are extracted, and man’s continual attempt to control nature. And on education in Odessa, Texas, I just had to chuckle, “It was the quintessential small-town craziness, the sweetly supportive abiding side by side with the maliciously venomous.” This is just the microcosm, which also holds true in the macrocosm of America.
It always seems to be about blood, family, and love. Richard has returned to find Ruth teaching the children. He joins her in this endeavor rather than seek oil or gas, instead he seeks sweet water for the town to replace the saline they have endured for too long. The returning man to a place that has been unrelenting in its thirst for dreamers he asks her, “Does it fill you, or does it hollow you out?” That is a question we all must ask, especially when the circus returns to town and challenges us not to be afraid to live.