Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Breaking Clean

It isn't often one has the opportunity for such an apt title.

Born in 1954 outside Malta, Montana, Judy Blunt grew up with four siblings on a ranch in near-poverty conditions. My paperback edition includes a photo of Blunt and two siblings taken circa 1958. Dressed in ragged clothing, torn shoes, and sporting home haircuts, the children resemble a Dorothea Lange photograph. Blunt's description of her childhood home barely strays from the impression: for years the family relied on wet cell batteries for what little indoor power they had. Laundry got done with a wringer; the toilet was outside, and bathing happened once weekly in large tubs filled with water so high in sulphurs and alkalai visitors sickened from drinking it.

The Blunts raised wheat, alfalfa, and cattle--hamburger on the hoof. And while Blunt's father was better to his herd than most, ensuring they were well fed, making every effort to protect them from harsh weather, soft city readers like me blanch at the no-nonsense attitude taken toward ill-behaved or simply ill animals. Pregnant cows were kept alive until they could give birth. Calves, after all, meant money. Too many cats? Kill some females. Breaking horses meant depriving them, if necessary, of the comfort associated with barns. All of this not to be cruel, but to simply survive. Blunt knew better than to become attached, but fell in love with Ajax, an enormous bull with a puppy's disposition. Against Blunt's better instincts, she bonded with the animal until the day she came to dinner to find his heart on her plate. She ate it, a good girl, but could not bring herself to consume his tongue.

Blunt attended a one-room schoolhouse until eigth grade, then followed older brother Kenny to Malta to attend high school. There she boarded with an elderly woman and began living as an adult. She was thirteen. Her initiation into the mores of high school makes for painful reading, but we root with her as she drops baby fat and learns to enough to pass. After school she waitressed, commencing a long life of hard work both on the ranch and away from it.

Adolescence brought the first feelings of difference. A tomboy with amazing physical strength, she was told in both word and deed that a woman's place was "dishing up" supper for the men. Yet when women were needed out of doors, they were expected to pitch in there as well, coming in with the men not to collapse in armchairs but to cook, clean, and herd the children. All this without modern conveniences like electric stoves, microwave ovens, or dishwashers. Blunt's rage was physical as she grew up watching a mother who was an expert horsewoman and partner in running the ranch acquiesce to her husband's rule. Yet she agreed to marry John, an older rancher, when she was only eighteen. Never mind that shortly before the wedding, in an inchoate rage, she put her hand through a plate glass window.

There are good moments. A summer spent on horseback with sister Gail is lovingly described. Both girls were such skilled riders that they moved bareback through the lands around their home, often lying flat on their horses. "Our legs had grown so strong we no longer held on with our hands, even bareback at full gallop...knotting my reins, I fell back and closed my eyes, head rocking side to side on my mare's rump as she picked her way beneath the willows that draped the steep banks on either side." (143) Yet even this idyll was marred--by Judy's adolescent attachment to a filthy coat, intended to hide her developing body, by the porcupine she killed with her sister, the two of them taking turns beating the animal with sticks. They reassure themselves they are performing a service: porcupines are vermin. Even when they are encountered far from the ranch, on a horseback ride.

This steady undercurrent of anger carries Blunt through her marriage and birth of three children, surfacing in clashes with her meddling in-laws, a growing chasm in her marriage, an initial sleepy refusal to be a "good ranch wife."

The book closes with two anecdotes before abruptly ceasing. The first is a harrowing description of daughter Jeanette's febrile seizures. The young family was forced to race to the distant hospital in rain--meaning the unpaved roads muddy enough to break tires. Blunt telephoned her parents before beginning the arduous journey. Her parents, in turn, called the neighbors. Everyone took to their pickups, creating a string of lit points along the dangerous roadway. A few follow Blunt and her husband until they reach the highway.

The second concerns Blunt's solo efforts to help a calving cow at 3 a.m. The story is emblematic of her early feminist leanings; when she comes upon the cow, she should fetch her husband. Instead she smoked her illicit cigarette and got to work, delivering the animal of her calf not in the standard (male) methods, which she reasoned (rightly) were unnatural, but by allowing the cow to lay on her side, pulling the wayward newborn as the cow pants through contractions. Again the city reader is amazed at Blunt's skill and sheer physical strength. But there, suddenly, the memior halts. We are never told whether the calf she worked so hard to deliver survived. Instead she is driving away from ranch life in an afterword.

The years following Blunt's divorce are a document of single parent suffering. Blunt enrolled in college, learned to lay and sand wood floors, and ran a painting business on the side. Somehow she managed to find writing time, creating a book whose lean, sharp prose reflects the unsparing beauty of Montana. Her deftness and willingness to work hard are more than admirable. They are awe-inspiring. And yet I wished the memoir had contained just a bit more--what happened to elder sister Margaret? To bubbly younger sister Gail? Did the calf live? But herein is the difficulty of writing about living people: at some point one must stop writing, even as the life or lives documented continue.

Judy Blunt: Breaking Clean. New York: Vintage Paperbacks. 2002.


Blogger SFP said...

Why didn't I read this when it first came out. . . it sounds exactly like my kind of memoir, but there was some reason I shied away from it. Hmmm.

I'd adding it to my list now. Thanks for the review, BK.

January 01, 2007 3:35 PM  

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