BookBrowse Reviews Shadowlands by Anthony McCann

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Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff

by Anthony McCann

Shadowlands by Anthony McCann X
Shadowlands by Anthony McCann
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  • Published:
    Jul 2019, 448 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book



A thoughtful and intriguing look into the 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

On January 2, 2016, a group of armed individuals under the leadership of self-proclaimed "sagebrush rebel" Ammon Bundy began an occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote southeastern Oregon. Considering themselves patriots and defenders of citizens' land rights, the group demanded, among other things, that the United States Federal Government and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) return the nearly 200,000-acre refuge to "the People." Several weeks later, most of the occupiers had been arrested, one was dead, and the heavily damaged refuge headquarters was returned to BLM management. As an investigative writer who observed the occupation firsthand, Anthony McCann takes a fascinating look into the events before, during, and after the takeover in his book, Shadowlands.

McCann's narrative is a surprisingly thoughtful work. While he thoroughly covers the "who, what and when" of the story as one would expect in a work of non-fiction, the really impressive aspect of Shadowlands is the author's contemplations on why Bundy and those who followed him undertook such an action—and what it means when cast against the background of America's shifting political landscape. Since the nation's start, there have always been fringe groups of citizens who've resisted what they consider to be government overreach, but McCann claims several historically unique factors fostered this particular standoff. He especially homes in on the political climate in America as well as the prevalence of social media, which allowed people to become fired up and congregate quickly in spite of knowing little about the Bundys, ranching, or public land issues in the West. "Many came," the author writes, "because of the vague but powerful allure of Freedom and 'taking back our country.'" Later, as he watches the conflict unfold, he comments on the divisiveness he observes growing around him:

Here was so much of the history of the American Thing, a settler story, but restaged for the Internet, on sacred Indian ground. Here were a bunch of want-to-be heroes on a divine mission, looking for a sense of power in their world, channeling the Spirit of '76 and mixing it with the legends of the West. And here were so many others – the rest of us – watching them, having feelings about them, and hurling these feelings at one another, alongside what we would soon enough come to discover were the fabricated personhoods of Twitter bots and social media operatives, faked-up voices of We the People, invisible companions in the scrum, egging us on.

Throughout the text there are passages like this that are exceptionally well written and that hit home.

In addition to the author's truly captivating thoughts about the Malheur takeover, in various chapters he dives into the history of the area, the territory's original inhabitants (the Wadatika tribe of Paiutes), the Mormon church (which heavily influenced Bundy's actions and rhetoric), and the backgrounds of other, lesser-known players in the drama. Although at times the book dragged a bit due to the amount of detail, these sections were valuable and added to my understanding of the situation. In short, it's a dense book, but not a dull one.

I highly recommend Shadowlands to anyone looking for insight into the modern patriot movement, as well as those interested in current events and politics. The book's vivid portrait of the Malheur takeover is laced with incisive social commentary; McCann offers an informative microcosm of the recent rise of right-wing extremism in America. While not a fast read, the author's understanding of the issues and his remarkable ability to convey his thoughts to his readers make the book a winner.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review is from the Shadowlands. It first ran in the July 31, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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