When layers of shale oil are discovered under Yellow Earth, North Dakota, and the neighboring Three Nations Indian reservation, all hell breaks loose. Set shortly before Standing Rock would become a symbol of historic proportions of the brutal confrontation between native resistance and the forces of big business and law enforcement, the tale of Yellow Earth serves as a parable for our times.
This is narrative in the full-throated, small-D democratic spirit of John Dos Passos, moving among a huge cast of interconnected characters, from the city’s pushover mayor to an itinerant pole-dancer who makes a killing at the pop-up strip club catering to the platoons of oil riggers with unaccustomed cash to burn ... However rigorously grounded in research, Yellow Earth is at heart a fable about capitalism in its purest form ... The finest passages illustrate how far the siren song can travel ... It’s easy to feel lost in a novel with this much sprawl. Complex information—historical, political, legal, environmental, geological—is sprayed with fire-hose force and volume. But Mr. Sayles writes with such verve and colloquial humor that even the most esoteric issues brighten with fascination ... Mr. Sayles superbly dramatizes the man-made disruptions in his novel’s small pond, but in a book motored by anarchy the most unsettling section occurs when the boom goes bust, bringing Yellow Earth to a surprisingly quiet conclusion: the depiction of a modern-day ghost town.
... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
Sayles’s scrawl achieves a sensational pace. It is the impressive result of a comprehensive portrayal...and an incredible amount of layering, symbolism, and ideology. There is an urgency to Yellow Earth, and Sayles wastes no words. In many ways, Yellow Earth reads like a Victorian novel. Themes of industrialization, utilitarianism, and the struggles of the working people make appearances in their twenty-first century forms. There is an interminable band of characters ... The result is a deep and tremendous account of rural America. Sayles is brilliant, illustrating the psyche of truckers, farmers, and ranchers with a precision that makes the book suitable for use in history and American studies ... Sayles is able to include a startling display of toxic masculinity, which becomes one of the story’s larger themes. The magic of Yellow Earth is that it doesn’t feel didactic or like an overdone parable. Rather, Sayles fills his work with contradictions. The competing perspectives and ideologies manifest through the characters’ colloquial conversations, inner dialogue, and motivations.