Book choice: A Western with feeling.
Some mornings I wake up with the sound of hoofbeats fading into the distance, and I know I've been dreaming about some wild horse of a book.
Right now, it's Molly Gloss' "The Jump-Off Creek." I've just reread it for Readin' in the Rain, Eugene's annual one-book festival in February - and like a herd of wild horses, it keeps drumming its Western rhythms in my ears.
Most of your garden-variety Westerns feature a lone cowboy, but Gloss plays with mirrors. This is the story of an American heroine, Lydia Bennett Sanderson, who comes to Oregon from Pennsylvania in 1895 to start a new life, although she starts out as an unlikely candidate for the status of "heroine."
We first hear Lydia through a worried but determined journal entry written in the abbreviated style of so many of the diaries, letters and journals of women who settled the West.
"For myself," she says, "after so long getting to this day, I find I am not much afraid - but that may be proof of my Madness."
Then, right away, the seeds of the big themes of loneliness and the difficulty of building community are planted when Lydia writes to herself, "I shall not see ... any women, at least until the Fall if I am still alive by then. ... But I am used to being Alone, in spirit if not in body and shall not be lonely. ... I feel a keenness to get to that place and stand under my own roof at last.''
It is this American compulsion to find our own way toward a new and independent place in our life that is appealing. When I remembered driving away from one life in a U-Haul with a yowling black-and-white cat on the dashboard, heading into the mouth of a Gallup, N.M., snowstorm, both determined and afraid, I saw that Lydia's 110-year-old story spoke to me at the raw edges of my life.
Lydia is introspective by nature, but of necessity she forges relationships and community in her rainy (it rained a lot in 1894-95 - you can check the records) corner of Eastern Oregon. A mile away are a couple of laconic cowboys, Tim and Blue, who come to be kind friends.
In the 1890s, Oregon had two men for every woman older than 21, reflecting what Western mythology often doesn't show us - that though there were twice as many men, a lot of women were making their way west alone after the death of a spouse.
Gloss is aware of these Western genre stereotypes, so some of the fun of reading this book is to walk, for example, into a shootout with the bad guys, and walk out realizing the bad guys are abandoned, desperate and lonely teen-age boys at the end of their options.
After a barroom brawl, the good guys don't swagger; they hurt bad and have gravel in their wounds. A marauding grizzly bear, a Fourth of July picnic - we have the pleasure of familiar scenes flipped topsy-turvy.
Gloss will always give us gritty realism, the cold rain down our necks - but I think it is exactly that realism that makes the story of Lydia and Tim and Blue a clear lens through which to view our own lives.
Like many Americans, especially here in the West, I've started over more than once. After the basics are in place, we look for people like ourselves, people who can share a festive meal, make us laugh, listen to us and support us in a crisis.
In cold times, like Lydia, we may deny our loneliness in order to strengthen our spirits. When Lydia's only woman friend, Evelyn, leaves the area for a while to give birth elsewhere, she asks Lydia, ``Will you miss me very much? I do hate leaving.''
Lydia replies, ``I have never been inclined to loneliness.'' But then, ``She didn't know where the quick, small grief came from. ... It was unexpected, inexplicable.''
What I love about this story is its intimacy, a quality drawn by the thread of journal entries woven through the book. ``The Jump-Off Creek'' is an antique mirror reflecting what we've become. When I talk to others about the book, during February Readin' in the Rain events, I want to hear the stories of how Lydia's life, or Tim's, or Evelyn's, or Blue's, reminds them of their own stories, reminds them of family memories from three or four generations back that haven't been told in a long time.
I want to sleep and wake with the sound of "The Jump-Off Creek" like wild horses running into the distance of my dream.
Eugene writer Sandy Jensen (email@example.com) teaches a course titled "Women Writers of the West" at Linfield College. She will be speaking about "The Jump-Off Creek" at Readin' in the Rain's Umbrella Opening Event at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Oregon Bookstore. More information about Readin' in the Rain can be found at www.read-rain.org or at local bookstores and libraries.
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|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Jan 30, 2005|
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