John Sayles is best known as the writer-director of such classic independent films as Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, and many others. But he started as an author, first gaining attention for his 1977 novel Union Dues, about late-1960s radical student activism in America. He continued publishing novels and short stories while working primarily as a filmmaker, but his most recent novel, Yellow Earth, offers fans an exceptional treat. Through a cast of individualized but relatable characters, Sayles paints a vivid picture of a region and the reverberations of its history into the present.
In both film and literature, Sayles tends toward political topics, often confronting his characters with moral and financial dilemmas as they seek to control the future of a community and its resources. Yellow Earth takes place in the fictional eponymous town in North Dakota, on the Three Nations Native American reservation, prior to the Standing Rock movement, but with allusions to this future event. The town strikes shale oil, resulting in massive population growth and many questions of what to do next with this newfound resource. Out-of-state big businesses enter, such as Case & Crosby, Texas oil company, which convinces residents to sign over their leases so the company can drill on their property. The people of Yellow Earth see potential in their town, but residents simultaneously worry about falling prey to yet another risky business proposition, like casinos on other reservations.
One character who supports the drilling is Harleigh Killdeer, leader of the Tribal Business Council for Three Nations. Describing the oil boom as “sovereignty by the barrel,” Kildeer questions why the people of the Three Nations cannot control their own destiny. His delusions of grandeur make him vulnerable to big business, the government, and a con artist named Brent Skiles. (Sayles enthusiasts may recognize this name from his 2019 published short story, “Stalking,” a forerunner to this novel.) Skiles turns a business venture with Kildeer into a criminal front.
Sayles’s dry wit and cynicism crackle in both the narration and dialogue. The author’s sprawling historical fiction recalls E.L. Doctorow and William Kennedy, and Yellow Earth is replete with astute exchanges that address power dynamics around law, government, big business, and minority communities. As Sheriff Will Crowder explains to Leia, an acquaintance, “The law is just a tool you use to get the job done. The job, to me, the point of it all, is that people respect each other.” Leia responds sharply, “You think you can enforce that?”
Crowder clearly laments the erosion of faith in institutions and authorities he grew up with and the rise in crime and drugs in the wake of the oil boom. Though ideological opposites, both Crowder and Killdeer represent outdated mindsets, long left behind. Yellow Earth is split into four parts that trace the stages the town and its residents undergo with the oil boom: Exploration, Stimulation, Extraction, and Absquatulation. The fourth part (which means to leave abruptly) echoes the jarring departure from social, political, and environmental norms that many Americans have felt since Trump took office. But Sayles is clear in his message that romanticizing a lost status quo is disingenuous, particularly as it affects marginalized groups in the US.
Yellow Earth is a return to form for Sayles, hitting his sweet spot of historical fiction that is dense and compelling. His knack for capturing the character of a region and the real-life ramifications of political and social issues made reading this book feel like overhearing conversations happening all around the country. It’s clear that what ultimately makes Sayles such a skilled artist and wordsmith is that he is always listening in.