Robert Laxalt’s fine memoir of his father
“Sweet Promised Land,” by Robert Laxalt 50th Anniversary Edition (University of Nevada Press, 158 pages, no cover price)
This is, as the title implies, about a Nevada and Nevada people that many of us newcomers haven’t known. But after reading this marvelous memoir, we’ll know both better. And we’ll know a lot more about our Basque community both here and back in France.
Author Laxalt is from a famous family, richly involved in Nevada. And this 50th anniversary of the book’s original publication comes at a time of change in Nevada, so it helps us see just what we have had here in this state.
Most of the book is about Laxalt’s father, Dominique, who came to Nevada in his youth from the French Pyrenees. The father met and married another Basque, a woman of incredible strength (she ran the original Ormsby House in Carson City) and intelligence who raised a family of six through economic crises. She was always a bulwark for her husband and a successful businesswoman as well.
This was an odd marriage, with Dominique much of the time heading up into the mountains with his staff and his carbine and his band of sheep. He used the skills he had learned in France well, and at one time was part owner of a thriving sheep operation. But the Crash of 1929 wiped that out. and he returned to herding sheep.
Dominique was a man of mental and physical strength, rugged, and able to sleep in blizzards, in drought, alone but for his dog. He had long said he would return home to see his family, but like many Basques in America, never did it.
That is, not until his sons cajoled him into making the trip, which is the essence of the book. Bob Laxalt went along as guide, also wanting to see his family members back in the Old Country.
There’s much to chuckle about in this tale – getting Dominique to buy a second suit to replace the wedding suit which “had barely been worn.” And about his relationship with bank robbers and their moral code. And about coming to America. But the chuckles are with, not at, Dominique, whose character is as firm and moral as the Pyrenees demanded. Tough love abounds.
Yes, this is a going-home book, but it’s not about forsaking anyplace or anything. It’s largely about aging, faults of memory and family love that transcends age or place. Dominique is welcomed back in his home village, the old virtues remain, and he is wined and dined and asked to tell stories, which he does with wit and vigor.
Perhaps this book is mostly about the kind of love that comes from respect, from honoring those who have persevered in our “sweet land.”
There’s a literary kind of academic forward by UNR Professor Ann Ronald, which is nice, but you can skip it. What Laxalt wrote speaks for itself, and it will still on the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Sweet Promised Land.”
The last lines are poignant and beautiful. Responding to calls from family to “Come back!” Dominique says, “It ain’t my country anymore. I’ve lived in too much in America ever to go back … Don’t you know that?”
And after looking at Dominique’s craggy, worn face, Laxalt writes, “And then I did know that. We walked in silence down the wooded trail, and in a little while the voices died away.”
Contact Sam Bauman at 881-1236 or Sbauman@nevadaappeal.com.