Thursday, April 01, 2021

The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown - Michael Patrick F. Smith


I spent most of my working-life in the oil industry. Be it in the U.S. or in some foreign country, I spent my days thinking about oil prices, drilling costs, and where the company would find replacement barrels for whatever volume of oil we would produce and sell that year. I often wondered what the industry must have been like in those early boomtown days during which so many people dreamed of getting rich by discovering black gold on their property - as so many did - but I never expected it to be like that again. And then, along came the new drilling techniques that made much of North Dakota into something very much like the boomtowns of yesterday.
 


I had to, however, watch from afar instead of being on the ground to see and experience it for myself; that’s why, books like Michael Smith’s The Good Hand fascinate me so much. I’ve read a few books about what happened in North Dakota after the oil companies showed up with what must have seemed to be unlimited amounts of cash to throw around. Some of the books were novels about the horrifying crime problems that resulted, and how the locals dealt with becoming second class citizens in their own hometowns. Smith’s The Good Hand, as its subtitle (A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown) indicates, is a nonfiction look at the mixed curse/blessing that descended on North Dakota when it finally became economical for Big Oil to extract the hard-to-get oil reserves that had been trapped there forever. 


By the time he arrived, the thirty-something-year-old Smith was a decade older than most of the men with whom he was competing for a limited number of oil field jobs. Smith, who considered himself an actor and musician above all else, came to North Dakota from New York City with $3,000 in his pocket, no job, and no place to live. He knew nothing about the oil industry or how dangerous oil field work is. What he found on the ground was appalling, but to his credit, Smith stuck it out - all the while burning through the cash he came with - until he got a job with a trucking company that moved drilling rigs from one location to the next. That he survived the on-the-job training in pretty much one piece, and that he eventually earned the respect of the experienced field hands is only part of his story.


The Good Hand is also the coming-of-age story of a man trying to get that job done before he turns forty. By the time that Smith leaves North Dakota, he is a changed man, a better man than he would have been if not for the experience. But it is rough going, and not everyone that Smith comes to know during his months in the oil patch will fare as well as he does. Some will be terribly injured or even killed, some will succumb to a life of drugs and alcohol abuse, some will end up in jail or prison, and some will just end up spinning their wheels with nothing to show for the effort. Saddest of all, though, is what happens to small-town North Dakota when an army of criminals, sex abusers, prostitutes, and already-broken people descend upon the state in huge numbers. Suddenly in the minority, the locals often get so caught up in the hustle and what they see as their own once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get rich that they end up ruining their lives.


Bottom Line: I experienced The Good Hand in its audiobook version. The audiobook is narrated by the author who does a decent enough job of it, but what makes the audio version outstanding is how Smith intersperses his own music and songs throughout his narration. Smith is such a genuinely talented musician, singer, and songwriter that his haunting songs contribute to the mood and tone of the book to such a degree that I ended up listening to the entire book even though I also had a hardcopy in hand. For the best experience with The Good Hand, I think that’s the way to go. 


Michael Patrick F. Smith

4 comments:

  1. This sounds like a fascinating book. That whole boom up in North Dakota was such a crazy ride. I'll have to see if my library has the audio version of this one available so I can hear his songs. :)

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    1. I heard some wild stories from friends who worked there during the boom times, Lark, but never saw it with my own eyes despite being responsible for several years making sure that my company stayed in the black on that project. Turned out to have been impossible to do, however, and we sold our interests in the area not too many months before the bottom fell out and lots of companies lost a fortune there.

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  2. I'm intrigued by this one. I'm not familiar with this North Dakota boom and bust, but it sounds fascinating.

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    1. From the outside looking in, this mad rush to small-town North Dakota had to be completely overwhelming to the locals. I still wonder how many lives were ruined by drugs, alcohol abuse, and sex abuse. It was definitely a mixed blessing to the locals...if they saw it as a blessing at all.

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