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From Yellowstone to the Bundys, this new book reconsiders the toxicity of our modern myths

Betsy Gaines Quammen is the author of True West, Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America.
Torrey House Press, Betsy Gaines Quammen
Betsy Gaines Quammen is the author of True West, Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America.

Betsy Gaines Quammen, who chronicled the infamy of the Bundy family in the bestselling American Zion, says that experience inspired her to further examine the truths and myths of modern American western culture. The result is her new book, True West.

“The onslaught of misinformation has attached itself to the Western myth in the last few years, leaving outright lies embedded in Western legends,” said Quammen. “And people have built their own versions of the truth on altars, disregarding limits of land, vulnerable people and unique cultures.”

In anticipation of her return to Idaho, as a guest of the Frank Church Institute, Quammen visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about her personal and professional inspirations, and why she says she now feels more hopeful since finishing True West.

“It's very important for us to understand these myths in order for them to not grow ever more toxic.”
Betsy Gaines Quammen

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. G-od morning, I'm George Prentice. You may not have yet heard of the new must-read book True West. Don't worry. You will. Its author is Dr Betsy Gaines Quammen, who gave us the bestseller American Zion, which chronicled the infamy of Cliven Bundy and his acolytes. She will be the guest of the Frank Church Institute at the Boise State Special Events Center come April 10th. And this morning, we're excited that she can spend some time with us. Dr. Betsy Gaines Quammen, good morning.

DR. BETSY GAINES QUAMMEN: Good morning George. It's great to be here.

PRENTICE: I'm going to ask a favor of you to read a passage of your book's introduction, beginning with the words, “The West is a place of diverse stories….” Could you read that for us?

QUAMMEN: Of course:

"The West is a place of diverse stories, symbols and signals and inescapable myths. There is a perception of profuse liberty, copious machismo, untrammeled wilderness, rugged individualism discovered and free lands, cowboy heroics, blank slates, conquered spaces, reliable rain that follows the plow tilling into arid lands, and enduring frontier. These myths continue to wind through ways of seeing this place and its peoples, creating hurdles and caring for the environment and communities…further gumming up the works. The onslaught of misinformation has attached itself to Western myth in the last few years, leaving outright lies embedded in Western legends. People have built their own versions of the truth on altars… disregarding the limits of land, vulnerable people, and unique cultures and the essentiality of relationships. Right now, there is too much being asked of the West. It sits between history and expectation, a place saddled with hopes it can't fulfill."

PRENTICE: I can't get over your title. True West. Can I assume that it may be a play on words, because the modern West, quite frankly, has a complicated relationship with the truth.

QUAMMEN: Yeah, that's a great question. Of course, it was Sam Shepard's play, True West. But I also really thought it was interesting in the sense that so many people have their own version of a “true” West.  What is a true West? And this book… this exploration is really going around and talking to people from different cultures, from  different political points of view, from communities that have different sources of information and finding out what they see as the “true” West. Soit's a play on words, but it's also our situation… that so many of us have versions of our own true West.

PRENTICE: Your book lands in the eye of a 2024 hurricane, which is to say, this year's session of the Idaho Legislature; plus the recent ugliness in North Idaho; plus there isn't a day that goes by that somebody doesn't either think about or update the Bundy story. And goodness knows that The Idaho Freedom Foundation ends up on many front pages. I have to assume that you worked on this for years, but it is landing at a very particular moment, especially in Idaho's history.

QUAMMEN: There's a lot of Idaho in this book. In fact, I think I talk about Idaho more than any other Western state, and I have been working on it for a while. I did my dissertation on the settlement by :Latter Day Saints of the West, and looking at how some of the foundational ideas in early Mormon church theology informed the Bundys. So that was my dissertation. My first book was on the Bundys and “the cowboy myth,” as well as this idea of Mormon values that went into their fight. And I should say that the Mormon Church has not condoned this. The Church of Latter Day Saints has not condoned this. So, the Bundys, however, are informed by that. And I took that this was kind of a companion piece, True West, to some of those ideas, looking at how other mythologies inform what's happening right now in the West. And it does look at the Bundy battle of Bunkerville, which was the event that happened in 2014. And in 2015, I went and visited the family and talked to them about :Latter Day Saint ideas that inform their land use war. As you might recall, there was an armed standoff in Nevada, and a lot of what happened there was foundational to ongoing extremism in this country. And I trace what happened there to the January 6th Insurrection… and look at the Western roots of that. So that's one piece of the book that I had been working on for quite a while.

PRENTICE: American Zion took that deep dive into Cliven Bundy and his acolytes. Did that kick the door open for you? Did that then prompt your decision to open up more of the West with this book?

QUAMMEN: Yeah, absolutely. It really did. I'm not sure if you recall, during the Oregon trial, and this was a year after I visited the family, Ryan and Ammon Bundy went and were part of a takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. And during that trial, Ammon wanted to dress up like a cowboy. He really felt like presenting himself as a cowboy would somehow appeal to the jury at the time, and it got me thinking about how prominently this cowboy mythology continues to configure in our imaginations. And with the show Yellowstone, that completely changed my community. Yellowstone being the show with Kevin Costner, really romanticizing the West, tapping into Western mythology. And I had this idea when I began to think about cowboy mythology, the Bundys and the West, and how Hollywood continues with iteration after iteration in perpetuating cowboy mythology and what it was doing to the West. And I think that during COVID and again, these are all the things I layer in the book - the extremism, the polarization and pandemic - and what it was doing in terms of making Western mythology become ever more prominent in American culture. And because many Americans were  living through situations where they had to shelter in place, they  weren't able to get out. Yellowstone really loomed large. I mean, this was a show of sweeping landscapes, and it was a show of this sort of hyper freedom, again, cowboy mythology. And so, I looked at that kind of pop culture, I looked at the Bundys, and then I looked at all the things that the West was conjuring in the American imagination and what that was doing to our communities.

PRENTICE: Do you think about where he might be? To be sure, there are bench warrants out [Ammon Bundy’s] arrest. Is it your sense that he is hiding in plain sight somewhere?

QUAMMEN: Well, ve found him in Utah, according to this latest piece that came out a day or two ago, that they have found him in Utah.

PRENTICE: Your home is in Montana.

QUAMMEN: Yes, yes, I live in Bozeman, Montana.

PRENTICE: What is it like when your neighbors know who you are, what you do, and what you've written?

QUAMMEN: Oh my gosh. I've had the same neighbors for a very long time, and, uh, and, they're wonderful and they're very supportive. I think that people… they wonder why I'm so interested in this.  I do have a lot of people ask, you know, if I feel safe and I think I'd be miserable if I wasn't going out and learning about it. I feel much better knowing where we are and what's happening to our communities and what's happening to our neighbors. One of the reasons why I was so eager to write this book is I really wanted to see what, again….what these truths are. And if there was an opportunity for reconciliation, if there was an opportunity for relationship building. And I have to say that I ended up feeling more hopeful after I finished this book than I did going into it. I am the kind of person that really needs to understand where we are and be talking to people, and I really felt like after doing this, that was going to be part of the remedy that that in engaging with other people, even with very different ideas, that that that was going to move us forward and, and again, I should say not talking to everybody. There are definitely bad guys out there. And I write about that in, in the book. But I did find that there are people right now being inundated by disinformation and by polarization. And in the process of engaging them in conversation, I had people say to me, ”If I if I hadn't talked to you, I would have been afraid of you.” And that was ever more motivating to me to continue with this dialog and with this conversation. So in terms of how people have perceived me or have asked, you know, “Do you feel afraid?” I felt less afraid after I finished this book.

PRENTICE: Do you think the West could survive without its myths? Because one person's myth is another person's lie. And my sense is many of these myths are just baked-in to the modern West.

QUAMMEN: Yeah, I think so. You know, it's something I've thought about a lot because white people foisted our myths onto the West. And, and I do think that indigenous populations would feel a lot better without white Western mythology. And yet, I think with settler colonialism and with the white population, uh, settling the West, they did bring with them these myths and, and some of them were, um, biblical. Some of them were, you know, I mean, manifest Destiny has, has biblical, uh, layers to it. And I think that when we began to, to perpetuate these things, we did bake them into this geography. And it's for better or for worse. And I think that it's very important for us to understand these myths in order for them to not grow ever more toxic. And I think that, you know, when I look at the dangers of these myths, in addition to the awful consequences of, um, settler colonialism, but I also look at this idea of ongoing abundance that that, you know, we have this expectation that the West will continue to provide. And, you know, we do know that there are limits to the West. But these myths, without fully examining them, continue to be toxic.

PRENTICE: From the Bundys to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, to the very contemporary references to North Idaho's troubled past and how it reignites to this very day… It's all here. Dr. Betsy Gaines, Quammen is the author, and the book is True  West and circle, April 10th on your calendar. She's at the Boise State Special Events Center, a guest of the Frank Church Institute. Dr Quammen, congratulations on this  blow-the-door-off- the-hinges book. I can't wait to talk to more people as they read it. And for now, thanks for giving me some time this morning.

QUAMMEN: It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much, George.


Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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