Reading the West 2-15-10
February 16, 2010
I know more about the writing of this book – “When I Came West,” by Laurie Wagner Buyer – than almost any book I’ve ever read with the exception of those I wrote myself, in part because I read it three times in early manuscript form and discussed it at length with editors at the University of Oklahoma, with the author, and with another writer who also responded more than once to requests for a “reader’s report.”
Reviewing it now is, for me, somewhat anticlimactic. I actually wondered if it would ever be published, and to be certain the book now available is much changed from the earlier versions I read – even the last one I saw.
These comments are from my last “reader’s report” on the manuscript and mirror my earlier reporting to the press: “Few women in the 20th century set out to ‘homestead’ as Laurie Wagner Buyer has done. This personal story has many lessons about challenge and hardship. Clearly the author kept a journal and the words she wrote became a way to center her life.
“This is a story of a woman’s personal journey in the West. Laurie Wagner Buyer leaves her city life behind in the 1970s, moves to Montana where she lives in a cabin with no modern amenities. Her companion is a self-proclaimed mountain man who has a mean streak, and who teaches her about ‘getting tough.’
“It is a memoir that compares to works by such writers as Linda Hasselstrom (‘Windbreak’), Teresa Jordan (‘Riding the White Horse Home’) and Page Lambert (‘In Search of Kinship’). The fact that the author moved into the West with no background about life in the region sets it apart from the work of Hasselstrom (a South Dakota rancher’s daughter/wife) and Jordan (daughter/granddaughter of Wyoming ranchers). This is a memoir such as could have been written by a woman headed West in the 19th century leaving behind family, friends, amenities to forge a new life. The author does not glamorize the life, she tells of the harsh realities in unrepentant terms.”
Having just reread the book, I am again struck by the hard life Laurie found in the West. Although she came as a “mail-order” companion, her arrival was in the 1970s, not the 1870s. Even so she had to struggle in learning how to deal with isolation, no close women friends and becoming self-reliant while learning to cook on a wood stove, haul water and butcher animals.
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There are some who will not like this book, who will say she lived with a man who was harsh, if not actually sadistic. That she should have extracted herself from an uncomfortable life long before, she actually did that. It is hard to even imagine being so lonely that making a puppet from the hide of a mouse, carefully skinned and brain tanned, would lift a woman’s spirits. Yet that was part of the reality of Laurie’s early life in Montana.
The power of this book is Laurie’s lyrical writing, and I would say she is absolutely one of the best writers I’ve ever read.
For Laurie the story, the power that pulled her to the West, was the land. And certainly that is what kept her here. But she can say it better than I: “I stayed because the land was my life, my inspiration, my sassy muse. The land became my reason for staying alive. Without the land, without the West, who would I be? Where would I call home?”
“After the years of toughing out a homestead life on the Northfork of the Flathead River in far northern Montana, I knew I belonged to the West, and the West in her own intractable, implacable way, belonged to me,” Laurie wrote.
Once this book had more words, more pages, but Laurie has stripped it down to a simple linear story that is powerful for the way she links words, thoughts and emotions onto the page.
This is a book you won’t soon forget, written by a woman who has endured privation, loneliness, physical and emotional trauma … all of which she survived, in part, by putting words on paper.