Michael McGarrity’s family saga of the American West ends with The Last Ranch, a novel that carries the Kerney family to near the end of the Vietnam War and to the adulthood of Kevin Kerney whose family history was the focus of Hard Country, Backlands, and The Last Ranch. Kevin Kerney is the main character in a series of mysteries and this trilogy was written to ground him and his family in the history of New Mexico.
This final novel begins near the end of World War II when Matthew Kerney comes home wounded from the war. There is a rapprochement with his father as they settle into ranching and he finds a way to move forward after losing his eye in Italy.
Much of the novel is spent on the hardships, ups and downs and struggles of ranching and the family’s long conflict with the U.S. Army which was determined to annex their 7 Bar K ranch to what was to become the White Sands Missile Range. Some might be tempted to seek comparisons between the Kerney’s and their neighbors’ struggle with the Army and the current Buddy family standoffs with the Bureau of Land Management. They may even be thinking McGarrity is making an argument on behalf of the Bundys.
They would be wrong. The Kerneys and Mr. Prather (a neighbor who successfully fought annexation) owned their land and were fighting eminent domain. The Bundys grazed their cattle on public lands without paying for it. The Kerneys pioneered soil conservation methods to avoid overgrazing. The Bundys overgrazed land, destroying and degrading public lands with reckless disregard for basic conservation ethics. Their ranching ethos and methods are diametric opposites and I imagine the Kerneys, if they were real people, would feel contempt for the Bundys.
But that is not the focus on this novel. Instead, the story is about how the land shapes the people who live there, people who must have a certain kind of grit and steadiness. New Mexico is not gentle pastoral land. It is hard, extreme, and unforgiving. It takes people who can hunker down and endure, who can adapt and evolve, people like the Kerneys. The land shapes their character and they bond with the land, as tied to it as to each other.
The Last Ranch is dense with the quotidian details of life. With finals and honor rolls, burgers and fries, gardening, cooking, fencing, and just living life–not always with high drama, often just the simple living of it. Much of Kevin’s story is just growing up, fighting bullies, getting his heart broken by feckless girl friends and simply becoming a man. Describing it, it sounds boring, but it is not. It is moving and powerful because you care about these people, you know them now. They are like neighbors whose struggles and victories you have celebrated your whole life. You’ve invested generations into this family, you want them to be good people with good lives.
I enjoyed The Last Ranch very much. The entire series was a joy to read. While the first two are much “easier” to like because they are more outside my own lifetime and experience, The Last Ranch earns so much respect for its honesty and the courage to write a big story of small things.
The Last Ranch will be released on May 17th. I received an e-galley of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley.