The word windfall conjures images of unanticipated abundance: sweet apples fallen from the tree, ripe for the taking; money unexpectedly found in a coat pocket; or a surprise inheritance of wealth. Erika Bolstad, journalist and former investigative reporter for Climatewire, offers these kinds of unexpected riches in Windfall, a personal family story wrapped in a history of mineral rights, the oil and gas industry, the hard realities for women homesteading in the early 20th century and the American myths of exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny.
This heartfelt, meticulously researched memoir hinges on the author’s great-grandmother Anna Josephine Sletvold, a daughter of Norwegian immigrants who set up a homestead in North Dakota in the early 1900s. In 1907, according to family lore, Anna disappeared.
More than 100 years later, Bolstad’s mother received a surprise $2,400 check from an oil company—a payment for leasing the mineral rights beneath the surface of the lands where Anna’s homestead once was, at the edge of North Dakota’s profitable Bakken oil fields. She was jubilant. “We could be rich” had been whispered throughout their family history, starting in the early 1950s when North Dakota began its quest for oil, and when Bolstad’s grandparents entered into a lease agreement for royalties on mineral rights.
A short time later, Bolstad’s mother died, leaving behind a mystery that sparked the author’s investigative bent: What exactly had happened to Anna? And was the possibility of riches from oil-related wealth a reality or a chimera? Bolstad writes that this mystery “was my inheritance, my windfall. My story to tell.”
Into the personal fabric of this memoir, in which Bolstad recounts her search for how Anna was “lost,” the author weaves a robust history of the Homestead Act; the rise and fall of the North Dakota oil fields; the often nefarious practices companies employed to make huge profits at the expense of lands, workers and the public; and the political, economic and environmental implications of America’s never-ending quest for energy—and wealth.
With so much urgent concern over climate change and the impacts—environmental, political, economic and social—we humans have on our planet, Windfall is a timely, insightful and important read.