In early 2016, a couple of dozen armed Mormon cowboy ranchers took over a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service installation in eastern Oregon. In Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff, Anthony McCann offers a nuanced account of the 41-day occupation of the Malheur (“bad luck”) National Wildlife Refuge. McCann has a sharp eye for detail, he knows the historical and natural settings, and he also understands how to get out of the way of his characters. Zealots of the sovereign movement, these occupiers argued that the federal government had no authority to own or govern public lands; some even insisted that the government was entirely illegitimate, justifying their beliefs by citing the Constitution, the very document that legitimized the federal government and defined its powers.
There is a risk in telling such a story: that it will fall prey to the narrative of libertarian westerners—steeds replaced by pickups, Winchesters now automatic weapons—which has emerged in some treatments of the occupation; its central figure, Ammon Bundy; and his father, Cliven Bundy. McCann, however, recognizes and avoids that mistake. He’s not interested in a predigested story: westerners at the fringes of civilized behavior. Instead, he reports on the standoff as it is. Such a strategy allows him to situate his account within broader streams of American, and especially western American, history. A book this good should have an index.
William Deverell is the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and a professor of history at the University of Southern California.
• By Anthony McCann
• Bloomsbury, 448 pages, $30
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