by Judy Blunt
Published by Knopf
303 pages, 2002
Reviewed by David Abrams
Reading Judy Blunt's ranch-wife memoir Breaking Clean, you can almost hear the bone snap in half. The sharp snick of tibia comes across loud and clear when she writes sentences like:
"Don't think you're going to run this ranch," [John, her husband] said, and for once the truth lay between us, flat and unmoving. In the stillness that followed, his expression never moved, and my gut twisted with the finality I read in those clean straight lines. Old rules do not break; they simply stretch and snap back like a well-made fence.
Breaking Clean is full of barbed-wire fences which separate the Marlboro Man from Dutiful Wife. Blunt, chafing under the sexist traditions that ruled her family's 15,000-acre Montana ranch, goes about armed with a pair of wire cutters, snipping the divisive strands whenever she can.
Raised near Malta, along the state's northern Hi-Line, Blunt describes her childhood with compelling candor. Here, you'll find accounts of calving, horse-breaking, herding and -- by obligation -- homemaker duties like cooking and canning. To those already living inside the ranching hierarchy, there's probably very little here that's surprising or remarkable. Keeping a ranch solvent these days is hard work, backbreaking toil required in equal measures from both sexes. And yet, as Blunt writes, each of the sexes maintain distinct niches:
Called out to run the vaccine gun or help sort cattle, a ranch wife enters the kitchen at noon, the table bracketed by hungry men -- a husband, a couple of neighbor men or hired hands -- whose contribution to the noon meal is to tune in to Paul Harvey's radio news and wait with good-natured forbearance while she scrubs manure from her hands and jerks the roast from the oven, microwaves a few potatoes.
Blunt is just one of a thousand women across a dozen generations who have routined their lives in this cocoon of traditional sex roles. You can read Elinore Pruitt Stewart's Letters of a Woman Homesteader (1914) and get nearly the same picture of ranch wifery. Women in the rural West have long been expected to follow in the ruts worn by the wagons of their ancestors: help brand cattle one minute, put steak-and-potatoes meals on the dinner table the next. In their spare moments, they must attend to household chores and raise the next generation of ranchers. As Blunt tells it, the men run the ranch business, the wives run the household and keep their tongues silent, stifle their spirit. That's the way it's always been, the way circumstances -- the weather, the land, the stock prices -- dictate it will always be for these wind-chapped women who have as many blisters from roping as they do from scrubbing floors.
For most of us living outside that culture, Breaking Clean will read like fiction. When Blunt is elbow-deep inside a birthing cow, singing Bridge Over Troubled Water to soothe the mother while groping inside for the calf's foot -- that's when we realize our lives are radically different from hers. Few of us have had to bear the shame and anger of a father-in-law smashing our typewriter with a sledgehammer, either -- a brief, but telling incident, as Blunt describes how she first tried to squirm free of the ranch-wife cocoon by putting her thoughts down on paper. She's also forbidden to smoke or buy any unnecessary groceries.
Blunt didn't necessarily lead a remarkable life -- one-room schoolhouse education, marriage at 17 to a taciturn man nearly 30, raise crops, raise cattle, raise kids, but don't raise your voice. Yet, it's exactly Blunt's voice which brings Breaking Clean so alive. True to her fitting last name, the memoir is candid and unflinching, even in moments when Blunt comes off smelling like a barnyard. At one point, when her parents are away for an afternoon, the rebellious teen gets drunk then smashes her hand through a window; later, she is unnecessarily cruel to her mother-in-law who offers to help with the new bride's chores.
There are some scenes on these pages the author recalls with remarkable detail. The words have that rare ability to transport the reader through the page and into the landscape of northeast Montana, as when Blunt carries the jerking, headless body of her just-butchered pet chicken to the boiling pot of water then later looks through the pile of heads until she finds the familiar one with its pattern of rust-colored feathers. In another instance, she must choke down the cooked heart of her beloved steer. There's no room for sentimentality on the ranch, but Blunt deftly balances it with hard-bit reality.
You can also hear the tremble of anger and frustration underneath her words as she yearns to be free of the rigid, unspoken rules of domesticity:
As a young ranch wife, I wed my sixties-style feminism to a system of conflicting expectations and beliefs only slightly altered by a century of mute nobility. My brand of feminism celebrated strength through silence. A woman could do anything, so long as she did it quickly, quietly and efficiently. It never occurred to me then that silence looked passive from the outside, or that the two served the same purpose of not making waves, maintaining the status quo. It would take me ten years of doing it all to finally get it. The work we do isn't the issue. Work is the tool that wears us down, draws us in and keeps our eyes on the next two steps ahead. The issue is power. And it's the silence that kills us.
But eventually, she does make a clean break with tradition by leaving her husband, their ranch, and a community of shocked neighbors. With her three kids in tow, she strikes off on her own, moving to Missoula where she eventually attends the university, earns a master's degree, and gets a teaching position.
Along the way, the anger boiled over and spilled onto the page. Emotion, as much as event, carries this book for most of its length. That's why it's disappointing -- and surprising -- that after such a strong buildup, a steady crescendo of feminism, Blunt shies away from the subject of her divorce. Scant mention is made of the event and even less space is devoted to the emotional impact it had on the author and her husband (who still lives on their Phillips County ranch). This would undoubtedly be the watershed moment we've been waiting for during the last 294 pages (the D word appears in an afterword with less than 10 pages remaining). The portrait she'd painted of John in the preceding chapters had been blandly nonjudgmental -- apart from him being weak-willed when it came to taking a stand against the patriarchal monopoly. He seemed a fair, patient man, but then suddenly Judy is divorced from him and striking out on her own. I smell a bit of a pulled-punch reluctance on her part -- as if she is carefully stepping through a yard dotted with cow manure.
By not giving us the moment where the marital tibia snaps, Blunt weakens the book and brings it to a whispery conclusion. Then again, perhaps it only appears to whisper when, by comparison, the rest of the memoir is such a loud shout. Like a fed-up woman standing in the middle of a prairie and screaming, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" Blunt's voice carries for miles on the wind. | September 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.