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S.D. novelist mines pipeline controversy

Lori Armstrong, pictured here, is the Rapid City-based author of a new novel that is partly inspired by real-life pipeline projects in South Dakota. (Photo by Russell Lloyd Jensen/Sage Studios)

Real-life issues surrounding the construction of crude-oil pipelines through South Dakota helped inspire a new novel by a South Dakota author.

"Mercy Kill," by Lori Armstrong, of Rapid City, hit bookshelves two weeks ago. It's set in western South Dakota in the fictional Eagle County and features the character Mercy Gunderson, a former Army sniper who returns to her family's ranch. With limited job opportunities, Gunderson takes a job at a local bar. Her attempt to settle back home, however, is interrupted when Titan Oil, a Canadian company, proposes to run underground pipelines through the county. The proposal stirs tense emotions, and after an act of violence, Gunderson takes it upon herself to find a killer.

While Armstrong was writing the novel, TransCanada proposed the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline through western South Dakota. TransCanada already was building another pipeline through the eastern part of the state.

Armstrong, who still has family in Woonsocket, said her novel is not a direct reflection of TransCanada's activity in the state but is based partly on TransCanada's involvement with South Dakotans.

"South Dakota issues will always be a jumping off point for me," Armstrong said. "It affects the lives of South Dakotans and those who make their living from the land."

She did extensive research, she said, and tried to make her fiction comparable to real-life situations without plaguing readers with information overload. She wanted her book to be one that residents in California and other states could read and be interested in, too.

"It can't be an information dump. You're not preaching to people. There's a fine line between how it affects the plot and the characters, but it can't be what it's all about."

The book does address potential controversies, however. She said that if something goes wrong with a pipeline in real life, it lands squarely on the landowners' shoulders.

"If anything goes wrong, there is a lot of pass the buck. But who's responsible? It always seems to be the landowners, and they are the ones that want it the least."

Zona and Dwayne Vig, of Mud Butte, are ranchers and members of Dakota Rural Action, an organization that works to conserve and protect South Dakota's environment. Zona Vig said she feels a book of this nature can benefit and educate those who are unaware of what happens when a pipeline is built.

"This affects the whole state," Vig said of the Keystone XL proposal. "Not just a few people whose land it crosses. This is a problem for every citizen of South Dakota."

The Daily Republic sought comment from TransCanada for this story, but the company declined the offer.

Vig said she is vehement about informing all state citizens, because she didn't pay enough attention when the pipeline proposal and construction was happening in eastern South Dakota. It wasn't until after the pipeline was built that she began taking a stand against similar projects.

Armstrong agrees, and although she said she did not intend to push a specific agenda on her readers, she does want them to know that the building of a pipeline can affect more than just the landowners, because a pipeline leak could damage water resources, cropland and grassland for livestock.

"Those of us that aren't affected by it tend to turn a blind eye," she said.

Vig reiterates that message: "If it's not staring them in the eyeball or affecting them day to day, they don't care until they don't have water to drink or food to eat."

In Armstrong's novel, the proponents of the pipeline turn to violent acts in order to "scare" landowners into cooperating.

The Vigs never encountered violence, but she did say that because western South Dakota is a less populated area, TransCanada thought there was less of a crowd to fight.

Armstrong said she tried to be as unbiased as possible when writing the novel, but she also knew she had to create a character that was opposed to such a project.

"Mercy Kill" is published by Simon & Schuster. Armstrong is currently working on her third book featuring the Gunderson character, "Dark Mercy," which she expects to be published in 2012. She is also the author of the Julie Collins mystery series.