Cowgirl meets lawsuit

by Annie Dawid

Jackalope Dreams, Mary Clearman Blew's fifth book and first novel, depicts the head-on collision of the Old West and the New. There are cattle, and meth labs; ranches lost to real estate developers and young people gone to cities; the end of cowboying as a lifelong verb and the rise of cowboy tourism.

Corey Henry, the aging daughter of a tough rancher, is tormented by the disapproving voices in her head. Usually they belong to the angry and critical men in her life, but often it's her own harsh self-condemnation: "Look at her, the old harridan, her hair pulling back out of her braid in wild gray hanks, screeching at cattle that stare back at her." The loudest voice belongs to her father, Loren Henry, a prototypical Old West cowboy, who blows his brains out in the first chapter. His criticism continues to grate at Corey throughout the remainder of this long but always gripping novel:

" 'They don't know what's tough. They whine about their lives when they're not talking filthier than I ever heard in four years in the Pacific. Ariel. What kind of name is that to give a kid? A smack across the mouth is what she'd get, if she ever talked that way to me.' "

Like the wildlands lost to speculators, Corey's life has been commandeered by Loren, a former rodeo champ who can break a horse like nobody's business. He's not too bad with a daughter, either. As the novel begins, Corey has devoted her life to the upkeep of the failing ranch, trying to fulfill her abrasive father's dictates despite her one-time dream of an artist's life, a fantasy abandoned but not forgotten after an aborted attempt at art school. She is the small town's schoolmarm, religiously turning over her monthly paycheck to her father. Then she is sued for slapping the new student, Ariel Doggett, a foul-mouthed brat from California whose family has built the neighboring trophy house. The one-room school closes down forever, her father kills himself, and the future of Corey and the ranch, and, by extension, this 21st century New West Montana, appears to be in foreclosure: "Loren Henry had put on a uniform and gone to fight Japs in New Guinea so he and a lot more like him could be treated like men, not numbers, and by God he'd just about as soon he'd died in that uniform as lived to see what was happening to this country."

What is happening to the country is outsiders like the Doggett family next door. However, 13-year-old Ariel's tough-gal facade has more than a little in common with Corey's, and the adolescent's family secrets are grimmer and more sordid than her former schoolteacher can permit herself to believe.

Previously, Blew gave us short stories and essays; this novel glows with promise, much like the vibrant colt that Corey inherits. Readers will be eager to follow Blew's unfolding career as a novelist whose vision of the contemporary West rings sad and true.

Annie Dawid's new book of stories, And Darkness Was Under His Feet, will be published later this year.

© High Country News