Saturday, January 24, 2009

Wyoming's heady mix of "homegrown and imported storytelling"

Jenny Shank at New West writes in her 1/21/09 Western Book Roundup about one litblog's attempt to sum up the literary achievements of each state. Omnivoracious editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey are doing a state-by-state roundup of good books. They also tie it into politics, by noting the electoral votes of each state (Wyoming has three) and then accompanying each post with a bookish version of the state's quarter. The Wyoming quarter has been redesigned with a photo of Jack Schaefer. Lest you don't know Schaefer's claim to fame, read this Omnivoracious post by Tom Nissley:

It seems somehow fitting to have on our Wyoming quarter a man who never lived there. Jack Schaefer, author of Shane and over a dozen more Westerns, was an Oberlin grad and an Eastern newspaperman who fell in love with the Old West but only moved out to New Mexico later in life (and, as far as I can tell, hadn't even set foot in Wyoming when he wrote Shane). Wyoming, as a literary state, seems to exist mostly as an idea in the head of writers from the East: the best-known classic Wyoming book, The Virginian, was written by a friend of Theodore Roosevelt who prepped at St. Paul's and had two Harvard degrees, while the best-known modern Wyoming book (or at least story), "Brokeback Mountain," is by a woman who lived in Vermont for decades and moved out to Wyoming a few years before her story first appeared. Unlike Colorado to the south, which Ben Kunkel pointed out has been strangely ignored by novelists except as a site for Armageddon, Wyoming does stand for something in the American literary imagination, but neither has it developed the fertile combination of homegrown and imported storytelling of Montana, to the north.

Here's my three (or, rather, four) for Wyoming:

Shane by Jack Schaefer: Last year, twenty-three years after the Western Writers of America chose Shane as the greatest Western novel of all time, they chose George Stevens's 1953 adaptation as the greatest Western movie of all time too. I must say I would have liked to have seen how it would have turned out with Schaefer's own pick for his dark leading character, George Raft, instead of Alan Ladd.
The Virginian by Owen Wister: In an earlier vote, the WWA members chose The Virginian as the greatest Western novel ever. It certainly is the one that started it all.
Close Range by Annie Proulx: Subverting the Western, or expanding it? Long before
Jake and Heath first rode up into the Rockies, "Brokeback Mountain," when I ran across it in The New Yorker, knocked me out like few others I've ever read there. This is the first of three collections of "Wyoming stories" from her so far.
Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg: I snuck in a fourth here because I was so happy to find a promising book by someone born and bred in the state. (Yes, I know, I could have chosen Lynne Cheney instead.) Spragg's written two novels since, but his debut, a memoir of growing up on a dude ranch near Yellowstone (where no doubt he met many Easterners who had read Owen Wister), is the one that has brought the most passionate responses, at least on our site.

I can already hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth by Wyoming writers. Schaefer's "Shane" is universally admired, and Mark Spragg (shown in photo, ready to be placed on the Wyoming coin) has tons of fans all over the country. Most of us see Owen Wister as a fair writer in the school of Old West Fantasy. Wister's old fishing pal, Ernest Hemingway, better represents Wyoming. Our only claims to Hemingway are his fishing trips and the fact that one of his many weddings took place in the Cheyenne train depot.

Annie Proulx is a great writer with a crusty personality. The now-retired director of Wyoming's state parks (and inveterate reader) once told me that he admired Proulx's writing but wished she had written about Nebraska instead of Wyoming. Half-skinned steers and talking tractors and mothers bent on infanticide are not the stuff of tourist brochures.

Proulx, for her part, said that all of her stories in "Close Range" had their genesis in real events documented in newspaper clippings she unearthed as she went about her usual dogged research. She also wrote all of her books, including the award-winning "The Shipping News," in Wyoming, although she didn't move here full-time until the mid-1990s. She recently told the L.A. Times that she's moving away.

The less said about Lynne Cheney the better. She is a Casper, Wyoming, native, but her books are more the fevered ramblings of a doctrinaire Republican that actual U.S. history.

Nissley's list is a bit stingy. Wyoming may not have the literary cachet of our Montana neighbors, and we don't boast the number of apocalyptic (and post-apocalyptic) novels set in Colorado, but we can hold our own when it comes to books. By the way, Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle" does have scenes set in Colorado. But the man himself lives in Wyoming. Dick grew up on Colorado's eastern prairie.

As a writer, and one who works with writers at my day job, I offer my own list.

Alyson Hagy of Laramie is a great short story writer and I'm reading her new novel, "Snow, Ashes." She has an upcoming book of stories set in Wyoming. She grew up in Virginia.

Any novel by Tim Sandlin of Jackson. Tim has been called a writer of comic novels, which could be seen a pigeonholing but I view as a high compliment. Life is easy, comedy hard. Tim is originally from Oklahoma.

Jon Billman moved away from Wyoming. But his W.W. Norton collection of stories, "When We Were Wolves," is terrific. He's originally from South Dakota, I think.

There's a Wyoming cadre of mystery writers that includes Cheyenne's C.J. Box (Wyoming native), Craig Johnson of Ucross and the writing team of Mike and Kathy Gear of Thermopolis. The Gears write geological mysteries and historical novels based on their anthopological research.

International adventurer Mark Jenkins of Laramie has a collection of his Outside Magazine columns in the book, "The Hard Way."

My favorite book set in the state goes back to the 1970s. It's "Little America" by California writer Rob Swigart. Kooky.

Alexandra Fuller of Wilson has two stunning non-fiction books set in her native Zimbabwe (called Rhodesia when she was growing up there) and the most recent, "The Legend of Colton H. Bryant," set in the southwest Wyoming oil patch.

And while we're discussing Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" (see Colorado entry), I must note that there's almost a chapter's worth of Wyoming in the book.

Don't forget Gretel Ehrlich's "The Solace of Open Spaces" and Teresa Jordan's memoir, "Riding the White Horse Home." Gretel's from California but moved to Wyoming, where she was struck twice by lightning and returned to California to recuperate. She's now back in Wyoming. Teresa grew up on a family ranch near Cheyenne.

Speaking of memoirs, you can get any better than Jim Galvin's "The Meadow." Galvin's family ranch straddled the WY-CO border. He's best known as a poet, and teaches at the University of Iowa creative writing program.

A notable book of poems: "Beyond Heart Mountain" by Lee Ann Roripaugh, a Laramie native. The book was published by Viking-Penguin and won the National Poetry Series award. The poems are told from the personae of Japanese-Americans interned at the WWII Heart Mountain Camp near Cody. Lee Ann's mother is Japanese and her father is the Wyoming Poet Laureate Emeritus, Bob Roripaugh (see photo below).

That's enough for now. Don't want to overload my readers. In Wyoming, we too are omnivores when it comes to appreciating good writing.

Here's a gaggle of four Wyoming poets addressing the crowd at the Wyoming Book Festival in September 2007 in Cheyenne. Shown (left to right) are Bob Roripaugh, Wyoming Poet Laureate Emeritus, Harvey Hix and Craig Arnold, both from Laramie and profs in the UW creative writing program, and David Romtvedt, Wyoming Poet Laureate and author of many books, including the most recent, "Some Church," from Graywolf.


tuffy777 said...

nice article


you said, "[Philip K.] Dick grew up on Colorado's eastern prairie."

-- actually, he grew up in Berkeley, Californa, although he did have some cousins in Fort Morgan, CO

~~ Tessa Dick

Michael Shay said...

Thanks for the comments. I read somewhere that he was born in Fort Morgan and had a twin sister who died as a baby and is buried there. Did he spend his first few years in Colorado?