During the busiest days of March, I needed to escape as far away from the office as possible. So I travelled through the American West for a good half century. I found drama in a very harsh country where humans scrape a living out of the land, sometimes destroying it altogether, but where nature usually gets her revenge: Annie Proulx’ favourite landscape.
I enjoyed the ride, even when it was tough and violent. Tough people who aren’t afraid of killing cows out of anger, being maimed in an accident, surviving a mine collapse, looking for uranium in the desert, fighting fire in the prairie, having their car attacked by looters. Events, sometimes as benign as a baby falling under a house or taking the wrong road, constantly come to throw them off balance, destroy the life they’ve patiently built, but they mostly still pick themselves up and start over a little further.
The book follows an American family and their patch of land in Vermont from WW2 to the 1970s. The family father, a brutal, bitter alcoholic, dead set against modernity, runs a small dairy farm with the help of 2 sons, and the fear of his wife and daughter. The younger son lost an arm while hopping from a train, rambling through the country (probably with the hope of escaping his father). The older son is more ambitious, a clever farmer and hunter, but ironically he’s the one who has to leave the land he loves, after his girlfriend dies in a more or less accidental way. Did he kill her or not? Was it intentional or not? Things are blurred for the reader and for the young man himself, but he flees throughout the US, forever ignorant whether her body has been discovered and whether he is suspected.
He’s all the more ignorant as he doesn’t communicate with his family for the rest of his life, except for postcards he sends without return address. Irony of life has him wishing everyone well long after the family has unravelled and the farm disappeared.
Annie Proulx doesn’t spare the reader, but many things are left to guess, or are echoed many years later by a secondary character. Each chapter starts with a postcard, graphically presented with stamp and handwriting, which introduces the period and events. It was difficult to get used to it at first, but later I saw it as a masterful network of events and people, as complex as life itself. Sometimes Proulx’ language is spare and tough for farmers who don’t speak much; sometimes it becomes lyrical and poetic, especially when describing nature. It reminded me of her collection Close Range, whose writing I admire so much.
The land is a character as important as the members of the family. In half a century America transforms itself, and there’s a lot of melancholy as nature and animals disappear. The plot where the farm is built later becomes a trailer park and gets absorbed in a down-at-hill suburb. Proulx attaches herself to the male characters, but I liked the family women better, even though their storylines were secondary: Jewell, the mother who eventually gets a life after her husband’s death and learns to drive – and Mernelle, the daughter who attaches herself to the first man who takes her away from the farm. Tragedies abound in this book but these two characters gave a soothing, if fragile light.