Twenty Miles West of Hot Coffee: a Review of Price Per Barrel, by Robin Lynn Behl. North Dakota State University Press 2021.
Picture a town, Hot Coffee, in the American Southwest: a store, a gas station, a church, a few streets with houses, mostly one level, and twenty miles down the highway, nothing, not really nothing but a kind of nowhere. Robin Lynn Behl has been there. She hasn’t been everywhere, but is well traveled in the United States and the North American continent. To call her an adventurer would not be misleading. But more accurately, a seeker. Of what? A seeker of “what makes us tick” as a community, such as the community of Artesia, New Mexico, and the various communities within a nation, on a continent. Interconnectedness doesn’t roll off the tongue, it takes time to spit that word out. Robin Lynn Behl is interested in links between things, such as copper and cellular phones. She identifies and comments on the interconnectedness of things, and to do that, she goes to where the things are, things such as the Keystone pipeline in North Dakota.
Price Per Barrel, this must be about oil. And much more. Because the author shows vividly, succinctly, how and to what extent things like oil, copper, and, yes, governments are part of our daily lives. Where did she start? In a school library, between stacks, sitting close to the floor, lost (in the good sense) in a book titled On Fire, by Larry Brown, a fireman, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, who departed from this world too soon, but left behind some really good books. Like Larry Brown, Robin Lynn Behl rode on a fire engine to a fire, to many fires. She also became an EMT, (emergency medical technician). In this book she goes in depth about the ups and downs of those jobs, and what “drove” her, what drives her, so a reader thinks, what if no one came to put out the fire, and what if there were no EMTs at the accident scene?
Price Per Barrel is about boom-towns in North Dakota, ghost towns in Alaska, about NASA in Texas, the WIPP in New Mexico, the Indy 500, and a desolate stretch of road in Newfoundland. It’s about crossing from Maine into Canada (being turned back), and about being broke in Ohio. All with a personal touch, Price Per Barrel is about the author, but also it’s very much about places and people who were there, and are there, be they protesters, cops, nurses, coroners, or even the select few astronauts. What does it take to launch a person into space, keep them there, bring them back? And what are the benefits derived? This book tells. It tells about the horror of the house fire and the warmth of the campfire. What’s it like to have a bear pawing outside a tent, with you in it? This book tells. What does it take to remove a 600 pound dead person from a narrow trailer? This book tells. It tells what happens when there’s a leak (on Valentine’s Day) at a nuclear waste site. Its topics diverse, it shows how things, people, and the places those things and people inhabit are linked, connected.
Imagine a motor vehicle accident in which thee people are killed and four badly injured, the police, the firefighters, the EMTs; the drivers towing away the wreckage, like the others, see the carnage. Imagine how that impacts all at the scene. Think about it. Why? Because they are part of a community; they interact with others. What affects them in turn affects citizens, also non-citizens. Why? Because empathy is a good feeling that leads to good deeds. Imagine the lone dispatcher on duty in Newtown, Connecticut, in the firehouse across from the Sandy Hook elementary school, the day a maniac entered that school, and the carnage that ensued. Imagine a red tarp covering a wall to catch blood spatter, when someone with a gun barrel in their mouth pulls the trigger. Imagine that person is this book’s author, who didn’t pull the trigger but instead lived to write about the red tarp, the gun barrel and things that took her to that edge.
Imagine hearing wind sing though a wall that a person can stick a fingertip through, the sound of that wind along a wall on the U.S. side of the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Picture the vast sprawl of houses that is Buckeye, Arizona, houses suddenly devalued because of an abrupt economic downturn. Buckeye went down as fast as it went up. Imagine Fermont, Quebec, a town way way up near the border of Canada and Newfoundland, a town that exists because of its iron mine, a town with strip club but no cemetery. Streets the author has walked on, people she talked to. Similar to but different from people she talked to in Buckeye.
Imagine being one of a very few women at a fire station, during the time of Katrina, that natural disaster the worst in recent U.S. history. Imagine being that woman and being harassed because you are a woman, and having to walk into a room and account for yourself, for nothing to do with your profession but simply because of who you are, a woman who almost loses her job, and goes on to write about it in vivid, matter-of-fact searing sentences with no self pity, about the work she loves and the firehouse she loves being part of. To imagine that woman is to get a glimpse, a picture of this book’s author. To see the inner woman.
Robin Lynn Behl was a firefighter, an EMT, a a dispatcher, a paramedic, and a physician assistant. She is a writer who writes with lucidity and passion about her experiences and the experiences of others. Why it is good to try to put ourselves in the other person’s place. Because someday you might be that other person. Because it never hurts. Because empathy is good. It’s good to see how seemingly separate parts of a community are linked. We can’t see the word humanity, but Price Per Barrel shows us humanity at work. Communities, like individuals are complex. Robin Lynn Behl breaks it down and talks about it. In writing that is first rate. Read this book. It will be good for you, a great use of your precious time.