This was one of the two books I completed in April (only two!) and I chose it partly for its slim profile. I bought it last year after coming home from a trip to Colorado with a desire to read about the Southwest then promptly stuck it in the book case, where it stayed quietly forgotten until its time came due.
The novel is set in New Mexico during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and is told from the viewpoint of Hal, a young man who lives with his uncle, the Colonel, a powerful cattle rancher who owns thousands of acres of grazing land but also grazes his cattle on government land (as many ranchers, including my grandfather, still do). A conflict ensues when eastern immigrants, whom the New Mexicans call ‘nesters’, put in claims with the government to settle the land the Colonel has been using for his cattle. The nesters move in and the Colonel adjusts, but his power wanes.
Around the same time, he marries. Beautiful Lutie Cameron meets the Colonel on one of his trips to St. Louis, where he sells his cattle, and agrees to marry him and move out to New Mexico to live on his ranch. Once she arrives she doesn’t complain about the harsh and lonely living conditions, but she does everything she can think of to ignore the fact that she lives in the middle of the desert with rough ranch hands. She plants cottonwood trees all around the property to hide the view and constantly entertains friends from town. Then one day she disappears, leaving the Colonel and their three children behind.
And the nesters eventually leave also, abandoning their dugouts and crops to the harsh land of little rain. Yet still the Colonel ages and loses the power he had over the town and the influence he wielded in his heyday. He mourns the loss of Lutie. Progress changes his world and leads to another family tragedy.
The Sea of Grass is lyrically written and aims to portray a changing West through the story of one pioneer who stoically succumbs to the march of progress and his wife’s rejection of his beloved way of life. The writing is sparse yet descriptive with lovely passages about the desert landscape scattered throughout the narrative. The Colonel and Lutie are complex characters whom Hal struggles to understand because their motives and actions are always clouded by their own misunderstanding of each other and, unlike the typical Western novel, nothing is black and white in their lives. I liked that the novel was about the West, but doesn’t have any violence or macho male characters. It is a subtle and gentle novel about a world that was lost a long time ago and is still mourned.