Leaning Into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West

  Whenever I fill out a form that asks me to list my occupation, I put down "farmer," the same word I use when I'm asked my husband's occupation. The following is a true story:


The man reading the form says, "Your husband is a farmer?"


"Yes, my husband and I are farmers," I reply.


"You don't have a job?"


"Yes, I have a job. I'm a farmer."


"I mean, you don't work outside the home?"


"Actually, quite a lot of farming is done outside."


"I mean, you don't work for anyone else?"


"No, I don't work for anyone else."


"So, you are just a housewife, or would you prefer farmwife?" (He is getting ready to change the word "farmer" on the form.)


I tell him, "Ted and I are farmers and I'm a wife and he's a husband. If you insist I am just a farmwife, then he is just a farmhusband. The fact that I'm the wife and he's the husband has nothing to do with our occupation. We are farmers, period."


* Elaine M. Oster





LEANING INTO THE WIND: WOMEN WRITE FROM THE HEART OF THE WEST


Linda Hasselstrom, Gaydell Collier, Nancy Curtis, editors: Houghton Mifflin Co., 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116 (Marc Jaffe, 617/351-5000), 1997, $25, cloth.





Review by Betsy Marston





Even if the words came to them scrawled on pieces of scrap paper, announced three editors in Wyoming, stories about women's life on the land in the High Plains states of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and the two Dakotas would get read and considered for publication.


So in poured memoirs and diaries: "Manuscripts from 550 women erected a tower of submissions 12 feet high," writes Linda Hasselstrom, author of seven books and, as one of the editors, astounded by the response. It took some four years for Hasselstrom and her colleagues, Gaydell Collier, a library director and writer, and Nancy Curtis, owner of High Plains Press, to read through the pile. They read with faith a book would emerge; they had neither an agent nor a publisher when they started their project. But they believed there was a book in women speaking for themselves.


"We expected to, and did, find women as tough as we are," Hasselstrom writes, "but the manuscripts were startling in ways we hadn't expected. We also met women more patient and angrier than we are; women who have endured pain that struck us dumb and yet kept their hope and faith."


The editors looked for authenticity rather than political correctness and stipulated no fiction, because "too much fiction has warped the world's view of the West." Some women told stories of their childhoods during the Great Depression; others told of struggling to help first-time mother cows deliver babies that were way too big. One recounted the bitter loss of a ranch to in-laws after her husband's death. While many excerpts take just a few lines to give a vivid snapshot, others are fully developed essays, immediate and memorable, such as Shannon Dyer's story about the auctioning off of her family's possessions in 1987, the year "the bank took our ranch."


The language is occasionally so naked a reader wishes for a little protective veneer. Phyllis Luman Metal, for example, recalls how she became a pawn in the domestic war between her cowboy father and city-bred mother. Lumen Metal, an only child who is now in her 90s, says her parents sent her away to boarding school when she was 6 years old. As the single product of this unlikely marriage, she recalls, "I never fit in anywhere." That is, until she came back to the ranch.


Deirdre Stoelzle, a reporter, treats us to contemporary experiences with colliding cultures at a cowboy bar:


"The fake cowboys are the ones wearing hats and Western shirts and are often overweight and have full beards. The real ones look oddly unobtrusive. Lots of them are fairly lanky, some are short, most of them don't wear boots or leather shoes. They're the ones who'll dance with you, and, depending on the guy, don't dance as well as you'd imagine."


Several themes emerge from this High Plains mosaic, and unlike some anthologies about the West, most don't make our cliché meter go off, perhaps because the women who express pride in the toughness they've developed ground it in experience. We see that the closeness most feel toward the animals they raise is created by the unrelenting care they have to give them. The land they work, which randomly destroys what they create by flooding, burning or crackling in drought, becomes their solace and most intense love.


Some of the writers - I counted 208 - confess it took them years to understand how lonely they were in these gloriously wide-open spaces. It took the women even more years to come into their own. Now, their clear, engaging voices can be heard in a book publisher Marc Jaffe calls "The genuine article." He knew it, he says, "when Nancy (Curtis) sent me the final manuscript in a freezer box marked "chicken tenderloins." "