December 21, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Colleen Nicholson,
Seeley Lake, Montana
Three collections of short stories published recently, focus on the West from a woman's point of view: Close Range, Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx; Cowboys Are My Weakness, by Pam Houston; and Sister Coyote, by Mary Clearman Blew.
Proulx (rhymes with 'true') has written several novels before this collection of short stories. The Shipping News won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994, and her most recent novel is Accordion Crimes. She is a good story teller, though some may find her imagination too vividly brutal. Two of her short stories is this collection (The Half-Skinned Steer, and The Blood Bay) are based on folk tales that are indeed grim, and she adapts them to her view of harsh Wyoming ranch life. Although she grew up in the East, she now lives near Centennial, Wyoming (population 100) and prefers to fly fish and cross country ski over attending literary events.
In Houston's title story, the narrator complains:" a real cowboy is hard to find these days, even in the West and even though Homer looked like a cowboy, he was just a capitalist with a Texas accent who owned a horse." Homer has other drawbacks too - his excuse for not coming for Thanksgiving dinner is that "it's the height of the rut" (he's a wildlife researcher). Houston was a river and hunting guide in the Rockies for several years, and her first-hand knowledge comes across in several of her stories that deal with white-water rafting and horsemanship.
Blew subtitles Sister Coyote, as 'Montana Stories'. She grew up in Montana, and her non-fiction book, All But the Waltz, is a memoir of her family, beginning with her great-grandparents' settling along the Judith River in 1882. Blew currently directs a creative writing program at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Varia's Revenge, the last story in Sister Coyote, tells of a sixty year old woman who can still appreciate her somewhat younger male neighbor "who has the eyes and the Levis"; but when a hunter from out-of-state stupidly mistakes her horse for a deer, she reacts with a revenge that startles her.Several of her other stories deal with hunting, from teen-age poachers who hunt for pure fun at night, to a hunter safety class for the new neighbors, who" build cabins from kits on ten-acre plots and hope to keep their kids away from drugs by living in the country."
All of these three women write from personal experiences in the West; and although their view of life on a ranch or in a small town is not at all romanticized, their emotional tie to the land comes through despite the hardships their characters encounter.