Robert Laxalt, |
Sweet Promised Land
(University of Nevada Press, 1957, 1997)
"My father was a sheepherder, and his home was the hills." With this sentence, Robert Laxalt, one of America's most accomplished prose writers, opens the book that launched his own career as a writer and influenced a generation of immigrant writers in North America.
Sweet Promised Land sparked a 40-year (and ongoing) literary connection between Nevada and the Basque Country. (This review is of the 40th anniversary edition, published just a few years before the writer's death in 2001.)
In this beautifully crafted memoir, Laxalt tells, in the most direct language, the story of his father's life. Dominique Laxalt was a Basque sheepherder who emigrated to Nevada about 1910 to make his fortune in America. Like many such emigrants, he meant to come back and, like most, he never did. Instead, he raised a family in Nevada and called it home.
But Dominique's true home was the sagebrush and the sheep camp. The story of his return journey to the Basque country in his 60s is interwoven with his tales of life on the American frontier during the years of struggle for land rights, the years of boom and bust and depression; stories of hardship and survival.
This is also the story of writer Robert Laxalt's own discovery of his extended Basque family in the small town of Tardets, France.
Surprisingly, the Basque Country to which the father returns with his American son in the 1950s is not that different from the one he left, except everyone is 50 years older. (In his later books, Laxalt explores these remote communities just as the old ways of life begin to slip into history). But this book is about his father's journey and, by extension, about all immigrants the first time they return to their homeland.
Sweet Promised Land was revolutionary in the way it looked at the immigrant experience, influencing many later writers, before it was OK to be "ethnic," let alone an "ethnic writer" in America. At the same time, it helped launch the University of Nevada Press, and that university's Basque studies department, forging a connection between Nevada and Euskal Herria, the Basque Country, that endures today.
Apart from all of this, Laxalt's writing is simply a joy. He's a great storyteller. Without passing judgement on anyone, he's able to convey incredible emotion and create unforgettable scenes. In one such scene, old Dominique is so outraged at a mountain lion that has been mauling his sheep, he attacks the animal with his Basque walking stick (makila) and chases it off. In another, the father is having lunch at a cafe on the journey home and, in a comic moment, refuses to let the waiter take his plate.
My wife Rachel, the literature student in the family, says Laxalt is on a par with Dylan Thomas as one of the best writers in English of the 20th century (significantly, both spoke a different mother tongue than their parents). If Laxalt is less well known (at least outside Nevada and Euskal Herria) it is because he conveys complex characters and places in the most effortless language. Laxalt makes it look easy but, of course, it isn't.
This is a book for the ages. Ostensibly about one man, it's about experiences that are shared by many. Although all the main characters and most of the minor ones are Basque, this is truly a story about America, the sweet promised land of the title.