Monday, October 27, 2003

Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt

I want to talk to you this morning about a writer who has had to go so far, work so hard, just to begin to have a life of her own, to write, to leave a world she was born to, tied to by children, by a (good) husband, by her own family. From the first pages, the narrator gives the reader a sense that she is drowning, suffering life rather than living it, without quite knowing what is wrong, wanting more, wanting a voice, but having no idea how to say or understand what she needs, and feeling a tremendous guilt simply for wanting more.

I am talking about Judy Blunt and her tough little memoir, Breaking Clean. Just writing this book is a task and a triumph far beyond what most of us will ever achieve. Blunt grew up in the fifties and sixties, but in a place few of us would even recognize. None of the conveniences that we now see simply as necessities were a part of the life she knew in the super-rural ranching and farming community of northern Montana. No television, no inside bathroom or plumbing, no books or music. Her early life sounds a lot more like what we imagine farm life at the turn of the century to be than the world we have known. Certainly, a hard life for anyone trying to live it, but hard for girls and women in ways that it was not for boys and men. At least the boys who remained had the dubious right to inherit the hard scrabble land they ranched and farmed, and escape from the scene during their teens was a distinct possibility. The girls were likely to be claimed, to be married with children of their own when still children themselves, at least in the eyes of most of us city livers. Indeed, one of Blunt’s only ways of rebelling, of insisting on being a person on her own, was to choose a man in his twenties when she was fifteen. The act of rebellion gets her away from her judging mother and stern father, but only to a life even more lonely than what she leaves and locked, for life it seems, in a world where all the rules are made up by men.

It is feminism that saves Blunt, though a feminism that is tempered and formed by the incredibly hard lives of the women around her, but let me have Blunt speak for herself.
I grew up admiring a community of women whose strength and capacity for work I have yet to see equaled, true partners in the labor of farming and ranching. Where the occasional man fell short, whether drunken and reckless or merely selfish and careless, his wife maneuvered carefully to make up the deficit. To be accused of ‘wearing the pants’ remained the worst form of insult. In public she held steadfastly to the role of silent partner. I saw this quiet endurance as a choice women made, one that made them secretly superior. Men did not drop what they were doing to tend to women’s work, nor did anyone imagine they might. Only women did it all.

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 to and keeps our eyes on the next two steps ahead. The issue is power. And it’s the silence that kills us.
This book would be well worth reading for the politics in it, the clear vision of what powerlessness does, of how whole lives simply are worn down and disappear. And while that certainly is a message Blunt wants to make with her memoir, the beauty of the book is in the incredibly careful and painful description of day to day life on this hard but beautiful land. As I was reading it, I was also reading a good little book by Alison Lurie, The Last Resort, and originally I had thought to compare the two. Lurie’s book is clever, almost staged in order to make some important points about feminism and homophobia, and the writing is accomplished, polished. My first thought was to compare Lurie’s facility with language with the much flatter, bare bones style of Blunt. But the further I got into Breaking Clean, the more I saw the raw beauty of Blunt’s prose, the ways in which the lives she describes mesh so well with the language she uses. Her writing is in no way crude; it is simply the language of a woman born to this landscape and chiseled by the forces of nature. It is, in the end, beautiful writing, though sometimes the events described are difficult even to read about.

Blunt simply wants to understand the world around her and to carve out a place for herself in it. She is not bitter, and if she is angry, it is a righteous anger directed at systems of power, not at the men and women with whom she worked and sweated and grieved. If ultimately she had to escape from her husband and family and even the land she loved and hated, it was out of a need to be, to have a sense of self. Indeed, had she cared less for her husband and family, it would have been easier to leave. His being a good husband simply made the struggle harder. Indeed, in her first move away from her childhood farm, a move required in order to attend school beyond eighth grade, she feels even more displaced, more foreign, than in her own community. With farms too spread out to make busing to school possible, when it came time to go to high school, it meant moving into a small nearby town, and instead of feeling liberated, she felt somehow even odder, more out of place. Again, letting Blunt speak for herself:
I would never be cute or giggly. I also fell short of those pleasant virtues by which plain girls are forgiven, that sweet and gentle interior that redeems beauty. I’d been tailored to fit one particular family in one isolated community. Outside it, my ground-covering stride became ungainly, my brand of strength unnecessary, or even worse, I discovered, inadequate. Outside my community, only one course made allowances for this puzzle of androgynous traits, and that was women’s liberation. In the course of the next four years, I allowed the movement toward feminism to adopt me. But still, like my mother, like the ranchwomen who peopled my childhood, I would not spout ideology or argue theory. Strong women roared in silence. We roared by doing.
Blunt is tough, and the land from which she came is austere, unforgiving, almost uninhabitable. But the prose she wields to describe her life to us and to describe her emancipation, her birth as a writer, is grand and beautiful. This may be her first book, but I’m sure it will not be her last. She has found her voice, and it is a voice well worth hearing.

No comments:

Post a Comment