ARC Review: This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild

This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild by Nate Schweber

It’s not often that a book on a topic in American history is a complete surprise to me. I’m a fan of history and consider myself fairly well read - especially on American history. Even if I don’t know a specific American history story, I generally know roughly what I’m getting into when I pick up a book. 

Yet when I first saw this book and its subtitle on the “Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild” I was intrigued. I hadn’t a clue who Bernard and Avis DeVoto were, and so I knew I had to read this book. What I found was a fascinating and surprising history of which I knew very little, and a stirring and uplifting story of a man and wife who became two of America’s foremost conservationists, and whose work was vital to protecting our public lands in the face of corruption and greed.

Surprise number one for me was that Avis DeVoto (nee MacVicar) was born and raised in Houghton, Michigan - not 30 miles from where I live. 

Surprise number two was that her husband Bernard DeVoto was considered in his prime to be a “classic” American writer in the same league as Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Sandburg, Frost and Rachel Carson. Yet he’s virtually unknown today.  

As I dug into the book the amazing life these two led unfolded. The DeVotos were  acquaintances of familiar names like Ansel Adams, Robert Frost, Arthur Schlesinger, Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. They clashed with the likes of J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy, and McCarthy’s mentor, the powerful senator from Nevada, Pat McCarran. It almost felt like a Forest Gump story.

But the DeVotos were far more influential than Gump could ever dream of being. Bernard’s journalistic leadership exposed and thwarted an enormous “land grab” in the Western states by monied cattle interests. Later, he worked to save canyon land in the Dinosaur National Monument from being subsumed under two dams on the Green River. That success set the stage for passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, the first time that “nature for nature’s sake” was recognized and given standing under US law.

For over twenty years Bernard wrote a column in Harper’s magazine called Easy Chair. He wrote several non-fiction books whose focus was on the history of the American West, and several novels under the pen name “John August”. His book Across the Wide Missouri was a Pulitzer Prize winner for History in 1948. Through his writing and activism he championed both civil rights and conservation. He was a leading environmentalist before the word was ever coined.

Avis, for her part, was editor and index writer for all of Bernard’s books, and was a book reviewer in her own right. She became acquainted with Julia Child through her role as office manager handling all of Bernard’s mail. (Child had sent Bernard a carbon steel French paring knife in response to a magazine column he’d written bemoaning the quality of American cutlery.) 

Avis wound up mentoring, editing, and championing Child as she and her co-authors worked to complete the masterpiece Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Avis was credited in the acknowledgements as “foster-mother, wet-nurse, guide and mentor.” It’s quite likely the book never would have made it to print without Avis’s knowledge of the publishing world.

If you are a fan of the movie Julie and Julia, you’ll have heard part of Avis’s story. The letters Avis and Julia Child exchanged have been collected in the book As Always, Julia (which I've not read). Even though I have seen Julie and Julia twice, I didn’t make the connection when picking up this book.

This was a fascinating book, and it’s a must read for anyone interested in the history of the American West, conservation and governmental corruption in the 1940s and 50s. 

RATING: Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

NOTE: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley and HarperCollins. I am voluntarily providing this review. The book will be available to the public on July 5, 2022.

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Title: This America of Ours
Author: Nate Schweber
Publisher: Mariner Books (HarperCollins)
Publish Date: July 5, 2022
ISBN-13: 9780358438816
Publisher’s List Price: $28.99 (Hardcover as of 05/2022)