In his sixth novel, The Great Sand Fracas of Ames County, Jerry Apps explores the contentious issue of frac sand mining. Earlier novels have highlighted land conservation, land use, food safety, and livestock siting. Apps is careful not to take a stand on these controversial issues; instead he uses his characters to portray the variety of ways in which people look at a specific situation or entry point that gets them involved in a particular issue.
Fine grained and developed through geologic processes unique to western Wisconsin, frac sand is used for hydraulic fracture mining of oil and gas—a process commonly known as fracking. For a novel, The Great Sand Fracas of Ames County offers a lot of information about hydraulic fracturing. While fracking is not being done in Wisconsin, the state’s special sand is very much in demand in the states where it is taking place. While an economic boon to some, the rapid development of frac sand mines throughout Wisconsin has caused many people to question whether or not the mining process is good for the environment or safe for the people living around the mines.
The people that inhabit his novels will be familiar to many Wisconsinites. Apps has often mentioned during his many book talks that the characters in his novels are actually a composite of people he has known throughout his life. The setting for each of his novels is the fictional Ames County, Wisconsin. But do not expect to find it, or his fictional village of Link Lake, on a map.
When the Alstage Mining Company proposes a frac sand mine in the village of Link Lake, events quickly escalate to a crisis. Business leader Marilyn Jones of the Link Lake Economic Development Council heads the pro-mine forces, citing needed jobs and income for the county. Some citizens are skeptical of the mine, and Link Lake Historical Society members outright object to the proposed mine location in the community park, where a huge and ancient bur oak—the historic Trail Marker Oak—has stood since it pointed the way along an old Menominee Trail.
Something like the Trail Marker Oak, of course, can be a taken-for-granted site or building whose value is not realized until its existence is threatened. Apps artfully weaves the importance of a local historical society, the imagery of the village’s Trail Marker Oak, the need for economic development in rural areas, and a cast of interesting characters into a compelling plot that provides perspective on the knotty issue of frac sand mining.
Nationally syndicated environmental writer Stony Field is the pen name of Ambrose Adler, a retired farmer living just outside Link Lake. While his readers don’t know it, Field is a recluse who walks into town when the need arises. He also has special skills that he uses to communicate with his pets, a dog and a raccoon. The characterization of Field is one of the book’s many delights.
Every village or community has someone who is called upon to act as the local historian. Emily Higgins, president of the Link Lake Historical Society, is the standard bearer for Apps’ fictional town. This is an important task, as Apps noted during a book talk, “When a community loses its history, it loses its soul.”
There are people who are eager to latch on to whatever is new. In this book, Marilyn Jones of the Link Lake Economic Development Council leads the pro-mine group because she understands the county’s need for more jobs and income. But, as the reader learns, Jones has not done all of her homework.
Apps has said one of the reasons he writes novels is “to get people talking about things they haven’t thought about before and to think for themselves.”
Two old farmers, Fred and Oscar, who enjoy meeting for coffee at the Eat Well Café, are the voices of Everyman in Apps' book. At a book talk, Apps described their observations on what is going on in the community as “both informed and uninformed,” reflecting what many of us could say of ourselves (if we were honest) when weighing in on important issues like frac sand mining.
Apps has a good perspective from which to make pointed observations on the issues that affect Wisconsin’s rural communities. Born and raised on a farm in Waushara County, Apps is a former agricultural agent for UW Extension, a professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. His many nonfiction books include The Quiet Season, Barns of Wisconsin, and One-Room Country Schools. Apps is also working on a third, hour-long documentary with Wisconsin Public Television.
Editor's note: A version of this review appears in Agri-View.