by Judy Blunt
Knopf, February 5, 2002
Judy Blunt's Breaking Clean continued my recent trend of reading books about the West, and like most of the Western authors I've picked up recently, Blunt tells her story in a sparse, no-holds-barred way that I both appreciate and identify with. She takes it one step further, though, making explicit her thoughts and feelings about the role of women in the West in a way that other writers (Annie Proulx and Pam Houston come to mind) haven't. The book is simply fabulous.
Breaking Clean is a fairly chronological retelling of Blunt's life growing up on a secluded Montana ranch, her marriage to neighboring rancher and life as part of an increasingly corporate ranching culture, and her eventual decision to leave the land and the lifestyle that makes up the only thing she has ever known. Skipping entire years and dedicating multiple pages to describing in painstaking detail the seemingly small events that her memories turn around (including a multiple page account of pulling a calf that made me cry with its honesty and gorgeousness), Blunt is less interested in a literal retelling of the events of her life and more in sharing with readers both her visceral love for the land and the lifestyle on which she grew up and her crippling disappointment and rage at the role she was forced to take as a woman in that lifestyle and on that land.
Blunt makes no secret of her feminism, nor does she shy away from idealizing the strong backs and stiff upper lips of the women around who she came of age--women who would never call themselves feminists. She sees, at a young age and increasingly as she grows up, the ways in which these women are short-shrifted. She takes on the problems of patriarchal land and family management and the traditional movement of family ranches from father to son head-on, calling them what they are and speaking with clarity about the role of these practices in her eventual decision to take her children away from the land she loves.
Breaking Clean is just the right mixture of thought and action, switching seamlessly from Blunt's internal monologue to the physical reality of the land around her and back again. Blunt's version of self-reliant feminism, invented from equal parts 1970s coming of age and a lifetime of exposure to the old world customs and near superhuman strength of ranching women, may well be the most comfortable and reasonable one I've ever observed. Even if you don't want to read Blunt's book for the feminism, though, you should read it for the stories. Her retelling of the great blizzard that plagued her family's ranch in the early 1960s, freezing most of the cattle to death, her baby sister facing off with an Angus bull, and her own uncomfortable move from a one-room school house to high school in "town" are worth the read in and of themselves. Blunt is both a fantastic theorist and memoirist and first-rate storyteller, and it doesn't get much better than that.