A Personal Look at Life and Oil | Review of “Long Change” by Don Gillmor (2015) Random House Canada

Long

There are many items in our modern lives that we just can’t do without. No doubt oil is one of those items that literary ‘drives’ our society. So it is no doubt that a literary look at the world of oil would be enlightening to us in many ways. Hence Don Gillmor’s book Long Change enlightens the lamps of our minds.

Page 24-25 Medicine Hat – July 1952

Lying on his bed in the Corona Hotel, sweating in the oppressive July heat, Ritt stared at the stained ceiling and examined his options. He had saved some money. That was the bright side. He was sixteen, and in his cowboy boots – the closest he’d found to the Justins that his  father had thrown onto the fire – he stood six foot four. He was filling out. He could fool a great deal of the world as to his age, though sometimes he felt like he was operating a giant machine that belonged to someone else. During the day, he could hold his aloneness at bay, but in those moments when sleep wouldn’t arrive, a quiet panic crept into him. His dismal room seemed to expand in four directions until there were miles of prairie on all sides and he lay on the small bed in the centre.

The sweat snaked down his chest even though he wasn’t moving a muscle.

He was coming to understand that oil was a living thing, it breathed and moved and gathered like a lynch mob, and to find it took a combination of science and voodoo. A geologist had come out to the rig to take core samples and while he was examining those cylinders of marbled rock, Ritt had asked what he saw there. Everything, the man said. You learn how to listen, rocks will tell you every damn thing. It occurred to Ritt that the oil game had two sides: on the surface there was unreliable machinery, drunken roughnecks and decent wages. But the real story was below.

Bobby would work the rigs forever. But Ritt decided he wanted to be one of the people who went down there and found that oil.

Geology is the story the earth tells itself, the geologist had said.

People tell stories.

The difference is, the earth can’t lie. Every story is true.

Gillmor brilliantly tells the story of oil production through the life of Ritt Devlin. We witness Ritt’s early life in Texas in the 1950s where he is first introduced to the oil industry. Then we see his “escape” to Alberta and his rise in field, first as a rigger then on to study geology and then starting his own company. Not only do we witness Ritt’s passion for the industry but his personal passions – his three loves of his life and there endings. There is a great mix of a personal drama and the history of an industry in this book.

Page 82-83

Oda had been sweating heavily in the night and was tired and her stomach hurt and she assumed this was all part of being pregnant. She was so ill on Christmas Day Ritt took her to the hospital, the emergency ward quiet, draped in red paper streamers and cut-out Santa heads. A few people huddled, nursing sprains and cuts and broken fingers.

“It might not be anything serious,” she said.

“It better not be.”

Both of them knew it was serious. They sat with their accumulating fear until a nurse led Oda away. Ritt waited where he was for a while, then got up and paced, the inquired at the desk, then paced some more. He was afraid to form any concrete thoughts. Oda finally emerged from the pale green door, her face drawn.

“They did some tests,” she said. “We’ll know in a week. Let’s go home.”

There are simple and direct descriptions here that make this book an interesting read. The plot flows through in a smooth manner which not only entertains but enlightens the reader about what life inside the oil industry is like. Gillmor has done a great deal of research and engaged a brilliant imagination to tell this story.

Page 182-183

Ritt left the restaurant, walking through the glum downtown. He stopped and noted the subtle swirls on the sandstone of the Knox United Church. Likely quarried from the Porcupine Hills formation. The distant footprints an overconfident Triceratops staggering through the last of the Creataceous, leaving an imprint in the silt and san that was distributed during the Laramide orogeny. Tectonic plates shuddering, the Rocky Mountains coming to life. Ritt looked closely at the stone. There was the illusion of uniformity but the individual grains actually varied in size and colour. Even stone failed to be monolithic  – it was a collection of individuals pressed into a society by forces they didn’t understand. Stone was equated with stability and it was stable, but only compared to other materials. Measured by geologic time, it was fickle and unreliable. There was rock that was easily fatigued and rock that was incompetent. It rose and fell and crumbled.

He thought, melodramatically, The city has turned against me. Though he knew this was simply ego. Who was the city for?

Long Change by Don Gillmor is an enlightening read into the oil industry. Well researched and brilliantly written, it is a book that is worth the time to read.

Link to Don Gillmor’s website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s page for Long Change

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