Ten years ago, during the height of North Dakota’s oil boom, my husband’s job at Motorola took him to Williston, ND to oversee a project building out the area’s cellular network. The weeks he spent on that project were some of the most difficult of his life, and his descriptions of the Wild West-like conditions have always stayed with me. This strange, brutal world is at the heart of Jung Yun’s latest novel O Beautiful.
It’s 2012 and Avery, a fictional North Dakota town which seems to be based on Williston, is booming due to its proximity to the Bakken formation, one of the largest oil and natural gas deposits in the world. A sudden influx of mostly male workers hoping to get their share of oil wealth have descended upon the town. After long days working physically grueling, dirty, and oftentimes dangerous jobs in the oil fields, the luckiest men go back to sleep in barracks-style man camps; others must quadruple up in outrageously priced motel rooms or live out of their cars. There are shortages of everything. Men are pulling in six figure incomes but are separated from their loved ones, living in tight, testosterone-filled quarters with nothing to do but work, sleep, eat, drink, and fight. Competition for women, who are easily outnumbered 10 to 1, is fierce.
Elinor Hanson finds herself thrust into this world after more than a decade away from her home state of North Dakota. Struggling to make it as a journalist in New York City, Elinor is down to the last of the savings she had accumulated during her previous career as a model. She receives an unexpected phone call from her former professor, an older man with whom she had been romantically involved, and he hands her a plum assignment writing an article about the Bakken oil boom for a prominent magazine. While she is grateful for the opportunity, Elinor struggles to step out from behind his shadow and find her own voice.
Before handing off the assignment to her, Elinor’s former professor/lover had been planning to write the article from the angle of “Insiders versus Outsiders.” The White townsfolk of Avery blame the town’s increasing problems of crime and violence on the Outsiders, non-native North Dakotans with skin color different than their own. While interviewing locals for the article, Elinor, who is half-Korean, is accused of being an outsider despite being born and raised in North Dakota. It’s the story of her life, being simultaneously an insider and an outsider, and yet also neither: not quite American, not quite Korean, and, to some, not even a “real” North Dakotan. It’s clear that there are deeper issues woven into the town’s fabric; growing too big too fast simply shone a spotlight on the problems that had always been bubbling beneath the surface. It isn’t until Elinor reconciles her own past experiences and the stories of her mother, her sister, and the the other women in Avery – those who stayed and those who left – that she comes into her own.
It’s a reminder of how complicated this country is, how great beauty and terrible ugliness have coexisted here from the start.”Jung Yun, O Beautiful
If you ask him today, my husband will say that being in Williston, ND during the oil boom was like living an episode of the Twilight Zone; never before, and never since, has he been to a place quite like it. In the same way, the conditions, attitudes, and atmosphere in Avery feel both unimaginable and yet instantly recognizable. Avery serves as a microcosm to our current, deeply divided society. The title O Beautiful belies the disturbing issues that run rampant throughout the novel: racism, sexism, nationalism, corporate greed, harassment, pollution. Author Jung Yun’s portrayal of this America is unflinching, uncompromising, and difficult to read at times, but only when we see things for what they are can we, like Elinor, move past, start over, and imagine a new, better ending.