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for people who care about the West

Bucking the stereotypes: A review of West of 98

 

West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West
Edited by  Lynn Stegner and Russell Rowland
380 pages, softcover: $21.95.
University of Texas Press, 2011.

Any anthology is a collage, a series of snapshots imperfectly melded into one composition. That's why we read them: They allow us to look at a topic from a variety of angles, through the filter of disparate but informed minds.

Such is the case with West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West. Editors Lynn Stegner and Russell Rowland have assembled the thoughts of "sixty-seven writers, each of whom could talk credibly about living west of the 98th meridian." A medley of essays and poetry, it's an impressive collection, a Who's Who of Western literature -- featuring Jim Harrison, Barry Lopez, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jane Hirshfield and Gretel Ehrlich, among others. West of 98 strives to put into context the post-colonization of the American West, a region 100 years young that "is still becoming."

A deep ecological current runs through many of the entries, along with the wind-chapped, sunburned voice of authority. These writers don't just live in the West, they love it. Kris Saknussemm speaks for many of his colleagues when he says, "We idealize the American West because we can't help it. The West we're really seeking is a place inside ourselves where there are things still to be discovered. We always end up heading west whenever we need to find more life to keep us living."

West of 98 seeks to ride the real West of today, bucking off the stereotypes of the past. Larry McMurtry describes trying to subvert the myth of the cowboy and the West, only to conclude that "Lies about the West are more important to (readers) than truths." And Charles Bowden declares: "The real West will begin when both the name and the habits we now cherish in our films and other fictions are erased."

Ultimately, the West is a work in progress. Writing about the region, co-editor Stegner notes, is "a little like dissecting a creature still alive." Fortunately, these writers prove to be skilled surgeons, and their words cut true, giving readers 67 firsthand glimpses into the heart of the ever-changing West.