Picturesque and nostalgic as the pioneer era might seem in hindsight, to be a prairie woman must have been, on most days, pure hell. But that story is sometimes absent from the pioneer literary history, a genre written largely by white men, about white men.
Until now. If you continue west from the stage for O.E. Rolvaag's classic sodbuster Giants in the Earth, you arrive on the high arid plains of Phillips County, Mont., near the Missouri Breaks, the setting for Judy Blunt's fine new memoir, Breaking Clean.
Like Giants in the Earth, Breaking Clean is brooding, psychologically heavy and stark, a reflection of the rocky and treeless plains that form this stretch of cattle country. Blunt is a third-generation Montanan, but her saga focuses not on defending ranching culture as an extension of one's dream, but on quitting it to find a future.
Raised in a patriarchal culture resistant to the idea of women as equal intellectual and economic partners, Blunt marries when just out of high school and soon has children.
"I was the daughter of a good rancher, wife of another, daughter-in-law on a corporate ranch," she writes. "I could do it all - I could play their game until I dropped - but I would never own a square foot of land, a bushel of oats or a bum calf in my own name."
Finally, after divorcing and moving to Missoula, Blunt discovers she cannot go forward without again confronting the land and the people she left behind. Ultimately, Breaking Clean is a magnificent breakthrough book and in many ways a universal story about how small-town individuals must break the bondage of their common mythology before they find an identity. It elevates Blunt's voice to the distinguished realm of Mary Clearman Blue, Terry Tempest Williams and Ivan Doig.