Book Review: "Prairie Fire" by Dan Armstrong

Review by Peter Eberhardt

"Prairie Fire"
Author: Dan Armstrong
Publisher: iUniverse

Despite all that’s gone wrong, we’ve got something big going for us right now,” says National Grange President Forest Mahan to a grange hall full of angry farmers in response to a grain harvest shortfall in Asia that has the wheat they sold cash-advance in January for $4.50 a bushel selling at $12 in June. “The grain reserves are down to almost nothing. Meaning what we have in the field right now in wheat and corn represents a sizeable portion of what’s available worldwide. Until that’s harvested and hauled off to the man we promised it to five months ago, we’ve got some serious leverage in this situation. How to best make use of that leverage is what we’ve got to figure out tonight. And mostly it’s just us working together. Without that, we might as well all go home and sell our land at a loss. Forget next year’s crop. Forget the kids’ college education. Forget it all. Buy a tie, some black oxfords, and move into the city.”

“To hell with the middlemen,” calls back someone from the crowd. “Another two bucks a bushel or burn it all!”

“Then we go right from the frying pan into the fire,” returns Mahan to the boiling mob before him. “That will get us nowhere.”

But the Midwest farmers have had it. Eight days later, a million acres of ready-to-harvest wheat goes up in flames in reaction to the dynamics of the market. A stunned American audience watches it all happen live on network TV, followed by such a rapid surge on the commodities market and equivalent fall on Wall Street that the markets are forced to close early. The director of Homeland Security lashes out at the farmers and the field burning, calling it an act of domestic terrorism and a threat to National Security. Two days later the National Guard is sent out to guard the amber fields of grain, and a tense standoff in the Heartland cuts a swath right across the political center of the United States—with a presidential election five months away and the future of family farming square on the line.

This sets the stage for Dan Armstrong’s powerful political novel “Prairie Fire,” an action-packed suspense story that is both great fun to read and, perhaps more importantly, a serious appraisal of American agriculture and the international grain market. Rarely in any kind of book, fiction or not, do we get this kind of multilayered overview of the lines of power, threading down from the board rooms of the corporate elite through the halls of Congress and the trading floors of the commodities markets, all the way down to the men and women who tend the land and feed the world.

“Prairie Fire” unfolds like a Tom Clancy novel, with the world grain market at the center of a vast money-laundering operation and the American farmer set up as the fall guy. Real-life characters who wear work boots and drive combines are mixed up with renegade commodities dealers, double agents, the Chinese mafia, the transnational petroleum industry and dirty politics clear up to the president of the United States. This is a compelling read from start to finish with a story line that seems so likely and relevant, it will have you looking to the morning newspaper to see if it isn’t there!

While at heart a rousing adventure story, it’s clear “Prairie Fire” author Dan Armstrong has taken pains to give a human face to the very real predicament of today’s family farmer—and an American tradition all but driven out of existence by the industrial “big-guy-does-it-best” model of agriculture that dominates modern farming and exhausts the soil. The reader gets to, figuratively, sit across the table and hear the real-world complaints of American farmers, suffering at the hands of an agricultural system that is both antiquated and broken. In the words of fictional National Grange President Forest Mahan, the American farmer has become “little more than an indentured servant to the merchant class.”

And this is the setting that prompts the nation’s farmers to undertake their first serious effort at unification since 6,000 tractors drove into Washington, D.C., as part of the American Agricultural Movement in 1979. Led by a charismatic retired army colonel turned farmer, Nathaniel Cromwell, and Grange President Mahan, the Nonpartisan Farmers’ Alliance is formed. After the first mass field burning, when the Farmers’ Alliance has the focused attention of the grain industry, the government and the nation as a whole, Colonel Cromwell makes the grain industry an offer through a grainy video much like what we’ve seen from Osama Bin Laden: “We want a cut of those industry profits or we will systematically burn our fields in million-acre chunks until we do.”

What ensues is a wild cat-and-mouse game where the National Guard attempts the impossible task of guarding 400 million acres of farmland stretched out from the Allegany Mountains to the Washington Palouse. Using only CB radios and word-of-mouth to communicate, the renegade colonel and an invisible army of farmers, looking like every other red-blooded American in the Midwest in blue jeans and ball caps, outsmart, outmaneuver and effectively hold hostage the entire summer grain crop as the key piece in a monumental collective bargaining strategy. While the action will keep you turning pages, the story’s backdrop contains an important look at the mechanisms of the world grain market, placed in the larger context of soil depletion, petroleum dependency and a changing climate.

Told in the wide panavision of the Great Plains, this is a novel with the potential of becoming a blockbuster movie. It’s a big story with big themes. The alliances and double-crosses of the characters in “Prairie Fire,” combined with intrigue at the highest levels of government, make for an absolutely gripping read. Only one question remains for this reader: Is there a producer in Hollywood out there ready to take this story on?

 

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