Historian Will Durant wrote that the life of mankind is a turbulent river. But the history of civilization, he said, is what happens on the banks.

He would've loved "The Kings of Big Spring," the story of an American family that plants itself on the banks like a swimmer saved from drowning.

Author Bryan Mealer sets his tale against the backdrop of seminal currents in 20th-century American life: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl migration, the boom and bust of Texas oil fields.

Generations of the Mealer family live, love, fight, drink and scratch for a living in an often unforgiving world, bemoaning the "Mealer luck" with every new misfortune.

It's a good formula, volleying back and forth between the great world events and the people affected by them. In Mealer's telling, though, there's too much emphasis on the family and not enough on the world. I wanted more of the great events and less of the burgeoning generations of Mealers.

His tale is populated by a large and ever-growing collection of aunts, uncles, grandmas and cousins. Add in the various family friends, associates and employers, and the cast of characters becomes unwieldy, especially as Mealer skips around to various players in the story. By the time Cousin Opal makes her second or third appearance, it's hard to remember how she fits into the story.

The abundant characters never really take shape as people, either. They mostly remain two-dimensional clichés: the tragic lover, the gutsy entrepreneur, the motherless child, the holy roller.

Mealer is motivated by an urge that I think most of us share: a desire to know where — and whom — we came from.

"He was young and unaware of his family's history," Mealer writes of his father, Bobby. "His own father had never sat him down and explained where they were from, what had happened in the years up to this point.

"His father hadn't told him about Julia dying; about growing up on the road, motherless and hungry, and how it had turned him mean; or the day they lowered his brother Bud into the ground.

"Did Bobby even know that sadness still lingered to this day?"

Mealer, a veteran journalist, is an excellent writer. His prose is warm and lively. But his story ultimately fails to reach its goal. We learn a great deal about how one family dealt with its own struggle for existence. We're offered few insights on why their struggle would matter to anyone outside their orbit.

John Reinan is a Star Tribune reporter. On Twitter: @StribGuy 612-673-7402

The Kings of Big Spring
By: Bryan Mealer.
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 369 pages, $27.99.