Friday, January 16, 2009

More Tales of the West

Earlier this week, I found a few minutes to go to the library. For someone without a job, this was a ridiculously busy week for me (too bad none of the stuff I did pays anything, oh well). I was racing against the weather this week -- the schools were actually closed here today, not because of snow, but because of the cold -- and when I got to the library, I found myself racing against time itself. I had only one quarter, good for fifteen minutes of parking, and found fifty more cents in my car. I had to race in, wind smacking me against the face, run through the whole Wal-Mart sized library to the front desk, have my fifty cents turned into quarters, then race back out, wind still smacking me in the face (how is that even possible?) and deposit them in the meter.

I also forgot to bring my bags, which meant I was limited to what I could carry out. Despite all this, I remembered my New Year's book Resolution, took some deep breaths, and thought about what I was selecting, rather than just grabbing. Hopefully, they won't be so deadly dull that I lose interest in the books to the point where I forget to bring them back and wind up owing them $20.

My choice of which one to read first was easy, as I had a seven-day book in the stack. Fine Just the Way It Is is E. Annie Proulx's third book of Wyoming Stories. Her first book contained the famous "Brokeback Mountain," but there are lots of other stories in all three books that are every bit as good as that one.

I just finished this book, and have come to the conclusion that her stories can be a dangerous read for a lifelong Easterner during the winter months, when it's too cold to go outside at all. It's easy to miss the point of the story for the descriptions of mountains and cattle and country roads. Next thing you know, a story about the land killing off every character in the story has you perusing for ranger positions in Alaska and Montana.

This book is no exception. Most of the stories don't have an ending that could be remotely construed as positive. The stories span from the pioneer times to modern times. The two best stories in the book, "Tits-Up in a Ditch" and "Them Old Cowboy Songs" serve as the bookends of time (excepting the one, very short story about a hunt during primitive times, inspired by cave paintings). They're actually sort of parallel. The introduction to "Them Old Cowboy Songs" states:

There is a belief that pioneers came into the country, homesteaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.

Wiht both couples, circumstance combines with a few unfortunate choices to guarantee them a short run. Archie and Rose McLaverty marry young and homestead a property, but make the fateful decision to separate for a time so that Archie can find work, even though Rose is pregnant. In modern times, the early marriage of love-starved Dakotah and servant-seeking Sash fails to work out, but each one's independent decision to join the military winds up sealing them together anyway.

The book is worth picking up for these two stories alone, but it contains many other good ones. I loved the two main characters in "The Testimony of the Donkey," a man and woman from utterly different backgrounds bound together by their shared love of hiking. It also had a sad ending but a beautiful, immersive description of the wilderness. "Family Man" was also good, if a bit anti-climactic. I liked the idea of the rest home for elderly ranchers that actively "promoted smoking, drinking, lascivious television programs and plenty of cheap food. Neither teetotalers nor bible thumpers signed up for the Mellowhorn Retirement Home."

The two stories that I didn't get at all, "I've Always Loved this Place" and "Swamp Mischief" were written from the Devil's point of view. In the first, he and his assistant do a walk-through of Hell with a complete remodel in mind. In the second, they have some fun with a Park Service ornithologist who was caught wishing for the appearance of a deadly and dangerous bird so that management would be more inclined to listen to him. I guess they're all right, and they certainly had some clever aspects (emailing Satan at I just didn't really think that they fit in with the rest of the book very well.

Overall, I think I prefered Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 to this book, but it certainly doesn't make this book bad. It was a wonderful read, as her work usually is. I reccomend checking this one out.

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