Book Review: Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O’Brien

Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O’Brien
Published by Random House Publishing Group on 2002
Genres: Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, Animals, General, Mammals, Nature, Technology & Engineering
Pages: 272
Format: Paperback

For twenty years Dan O’Brien struggled to make ends meet on his cattle ranch in South Dakota. But when a neighbor invited him to lend a hand at the annual buffalo roundup, O’Brien was inspired to convert his own ranch, the Broken Heart, to buffalo

 

In a book that combines honest details about the bitter realities facing environmentalist ranchers with informative facts about wildlife, grass, and the struggles and rewards of raising Bison, Dan O’Brien manages to transform what might otherwise be a dull story story into one that tugs at the heartstrings. One of the first observations made in Buffalo for the Broken Heart gets to the figurative “heart” of the matter: the idea that, when it comes to the Great Plains, “it’s just a big, empty land” (6).

The following pages in O’Brien’s memoir prove otherwise. Recently divorced and struggling to marry his desire to preserve the wildlife and start down the path to the restoration of the Great Plains, O’Brien sells off his cattle and decides to invest in thirteen buffalo “runts,” nicknamed “The Gashouse Gang” after a cartoon that O’Brien’s working partner recalls seeing when he was young (76). Although the majority of the book is dedicated to chronicling the journey of the Broken Heart Ranch as it transitions to a bison ranch, there are detoured moments that enhance the storytelling atmosphere while also bringing home O’Brien’s message. Drawing from real life anecdotes about learning to work with teenage boys, tragedies involving the health of the community people around the ranch, the budding start of a relationship with a woman who is now his wife, O’Brien deftly draws his reader in and makes the story a personal one.

In addition to these moments of life, O’Brien provides his readers with a history lesson by addressing both the northern Great Plains of the “American imagination” as a “product of popular culture, mythology, and Madison Avenue” when it comes to cattle farming, as well as the benefit the buffalo provides to the reality of those same plains (25). In a similar fashion, the “mythic American character” that is lauded for “fairness, self-reliance, toughness, and honesty” is discussed mid-way through O’Brien’s narrative (95-96). Rather than leaving his reader to believe that O’Brien represents that myth, he addresses reality through the following quote from real estate broker, Dick Saterlee:

“These are good people out here,” he said “Most honest people in the world. They wouldn’t lie to you for anything.” He shook his head. “But they’ll lie to themselves every time. (102)”

One of the most compelling moments in Buffalo for the Broken Heart has very little to do with buffalo, on the surface at least. In a moving section about the struggle the state of Utah Division of Parks and Recreation was having with the peregrine falcon project of Antelope Island and the exploding population of the great horned owl, O’Brien steps into the role of a peregrine, shedding his human identity in order to fill the role of a “surrogate daddy falcon” (147, 150). In this section, O’Brien balances the distastefulness of the act against the horned owls with the knowledge that what he is doing is something that would have been handled in a different way in a time when the land and wildlife were living in balance. In telling this story, O’Brien sets the tone for the treatment of his own bison toward the end of the memoir.

The final pages of the memoir deal with death. Both the death by suicide of a young man who had worked with O’Brien and been included in this narrative, and the death of five bulls by an arrangement intended to provide them with the most humane death possible. Life on the Great Plains is never easy and that is stressed throughout this narrative. Additionally, O’Brien refers time and again to the Sioux (Rosebud, Lakota) philosophy on life and it is apparent that he not only values the sentiment and tradition that inform those philosophies but also that he works to incorporate them into his own daily life and work.

O’Brien’s memoir is a moving, interesting, alternatively funny and emotion-tugging look at the struggles of a modern-day rancher. He provides his readers with an open look into his life, both personal and professional, and by doing so, his love of the land and his desire to see it restored and healed comes across loud and clear. There is a distinct call to action to support the Broken Heart Ranch in his Afterword with the inclusion of his website and, after reading his story, I was quite ready to look it up and read more.

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