When folksinger and playwright, Michael Patrick Smith, decided to leave a comfortable life in New York City to seek work in the Bakken oilfield of North Dakota his motivations were clear. He wanted to make a lot of money and make it fast. Companies were “desperate for bodies to work the rigs” offering generous terms to “any dude who could make the trek to town and swing a hammer when he got there”. In this remarkable debut, using as source material the emails written to his friends during his time on the fields, it becomes clear that his underlying motivations were much more complex.
Work on the Bakken is back-breaking and dangerous. Conditions, especially in the cold, dark winter months, are brutal. The friendships and alliances Smith makes with his peripatetic co-workers are forged in this environment, where mistakes can have fatal consequences. Although viewed as something as an oddity, an Obama-supporting liberal in King Arthur’s Court, he earns respect through sheer graft and becomes considered ‘a good hand’. Smith almost wears the exhaustion that accompanies the end of each shift signals as a badge of pride.
Back in the Boomtown, he shares bedroom floors with other transient workers, where the social infrastructure has been stretched way beyond its limits. The influx of men seeking work, and the desperation of employers willing to turn a blind-eye to past misdeeds, led to a sharp rise in crime. Smith, whose own upbringing was frequently violent, is unflinching in his descriptions of how the ‘boom’ is anything but for many locals.
Like the California gold-rush of the 19th century, the shale gas revolution has changed America. The importance and benefits of energy self-sufficiency is not some abstract concept, but something that will deliver benefits for decades to come. While chronicling his own time living this version of the American Dream, Smith also shines an unsparing light on the impact it has on the people tasked with building it.