Mount Shasta High grad tells stories from fracking country

Tim Holt

For her book on the North Dakota fracking industry Blaire Briody, at 29, moved to a fracking boomtown at the western edge of the state. She left a comfortable neighborhood in Brooklyn, and a job editing a business news website, to end up in the rough-and-tumble town of Williston, taking up residence in a trailer park on the edge of town. Altogether, she would make a half dozen journeys to the town in the four years it took her to finish her book, “The New Wild West.”

Briody grew up in Mount Shasta. Both her parents taught in local schools. Her mother Carolyn still teaches part-time at Sisson Elementary School. Her father Greg passed away while she was working on her book, which is dedicated to him. Before she took on this project, Briody had published articles in a number of national magazines, and she currently teaches journalism at Santa Rosa Junior College.

From the very beginning of her book project, Briody faced a number of challenges. As one of the rare single women in Williston, she received a lot of unwanted attention from male “frack hands,” but at the same time had difficulty getting them to sit down for interviews after long days and shifts of 80 hours or more per week.

Fortunately, she got some friendly assistance from a lady named Cindy Marchello, one of the few female oil workers in Williston. Marchello was a tough-as-nails, middle-aged lady with a checkered background who helped Briody gain access to some of her co-workers and their spouses. Marchello herself emerges as a fascinating character with a history of three marriages and occasional runs from the law thanks to one former husband. By sheer grit, she managed to carve out a place for herself in the male-dominated world of the fracking industry.

“The New Wild West” is in large part a collage of personal stories, patched together from numerous interviews and vividly told. They are the stories of people from hardscrabble backgrounds who were drawn to the North Dakota fracking boom as a kind of modern-day Gold Rush. For many of them, it offered a second, or third, or fourth chance to grab a piece of the American Dream.

Briody doesn’t spend much time with oil company executives. When she finally gets to visit a fracking site she has to sneak out to it without any official approval. Her main goal, she said, was to give voice to the people most affected by the fracking boom, not only the workers but also local residents who saw their town transformed overnight by a small army of strangers drawn by high-paying jobs. And the farmers whose livelihood and quality of life was being threatened by the invasion of crews and drilling equipment, by 24-hour noise and air pollution.

Briody traces the experiences of about a dozen of these people in great detail. Her vivid descriptions bring them to life on the page, and give their voices a strength and immediacy they wouldn’t have otherwise. Here’s her description of the Reverend Jay Reinke of the local Lutheran church: “His body movements and hand gestures are grand and attention-grabbing. Everyone knows when Reinke walks into a room. When he’s angry, the wrinkles on his forehead bulge and his eyebrows curve downward. When he’s excited, his eyes open wide, and he throws his hands up and grins like a Cheshire Cat.”

Or this description of farmer Donny Nelson: “Donny is about as American West as you can get. Behind a bushy handlebar mustache, prominent lines carve deep into his tan skin when he smiles – almost as if he collects them, with each one representing the passing of another season and harvest.”

As Briody explains, Nelson had a complicated relationship with the oil companies that were fracking on his land. Because ownership of mineral rights is not automatically tied to land ownership in North Dakota, Nelson had mineral rights on only a small portion of his acreage. So he received a small income from a few wells on his property, but otherwise had no control over where or how drilling was done on the vast majority of his acreage and received no financial benefit from it.

You will learn a lot about the economics of the oil industry and the techniques of fracking from reading Briody’s book. But I have to admit that I skimmed over a number of passages dense with facts and figures in order to get back to the compelling narratives of her characters’ lives.

Briody used a creative approach to financing her book project. She kick-started it by getting a number of small donations through a crowdfunding campaign, found additional funding and time and space to write thanks to a number of nonprofit organizations, as well as an advance from her publisher, St. Martin’s Press.

Since the book’s publication in September, Briody has been hopping around the country to promote it, recently appearing at Powell’s Books in Portland. (“The New Wild West,” priced at $27.99, is available on Amazon and at independent and chain bookstores around the country.)

Don’t look for another book from Briody anytime soon. She’s getting back to her magazine journalism, but says she needs to take a long break from any longer projects after the “labor-intensive” experience of immersing herself in the world of fracking.