It takes a book with broad scope to tell the tale of so massive an endeavor as the construction of the massive Grand Coulee dam across the Columbia River. The Grand Promise tells that tale as seen through the eyes of various characters, each with their own ambitions, dreams, and follies. Carter, the central character, is a young man whose life has faltered ever since he was involved in a mining accident. His wife wants a divorce, his father belittles him at every turn, and Carter can’t seem to do anything right.
Carter’s father, Ozzie, is a hot-tempered local gadfly, determined to resist the federal government’s offer—nay, insistence—to buy out the entire town of Kettle Rapids. His ferry business will be made obsolete and Kettle Rapids will become one of hundreds of places flooded once the dam is complete. The 1930s are tough enough, still mired in the Great Depression that the Grand Coulee might alleviate, at least for some people. Even so, Ozzie wants more than the feds are willing to provide and he’s not afraid to stir up trouble.
Other characters include Carter’s younger sister, Ona; a local orchard-keeper; Carter’s Native American co-worker, Joe; a reporter who wants a “big story” to help him move up in the newspaper business; and Starks, whose company won the federal dam contract and who stands to make big money as a result.
Carter runs away from his hometown rather than turn himself in to the sheriff, and he ends up working for Starks, first on a blasting crew, and later, helping to clear the floodplain of anything that might end up snared in the dam, whether trees, brush, buildings, or Native American burial grounds. Throughout his journeys and his many efforts to create a fresh start, he struggles to regain a sense of self and morality.
Rebekah Anderson has a wonderful way of succinctly drawing her characters’ inner state: “Reporters…had an impenetrable, righteous belief in their perception of the truth, but as far as Starks could tell, they made up that truth as they went along,” “Crossing the Columbia always made him feel small and inconsequential in the scheme of things. Putting boats, bridges, and dams on this river was like fleas saddling a dog,” and “People talked about him being hot headed, but what they forgot was it sometimes takes fire to make things happen.”
With plenty of action, vivid descriptions, and unexpected twists, readers will be swept up in the current of this historical drama that brings to life how the dam “destroyed to build.” Progress often has a price that is unevenly levied, and Anderson encourages us to consider its full cost.