Monday, July 04, 2022

Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt

Judy Blunt wrote these lovely snapshots of thirty years of life on wheat and cattle ranches in northeastern Montana as memoir. It stuns me that I had not run across this book before, finally gathered together as a book in 2002. Many, even most, of my reader friends had read this long ago. I’m happy I discovered the volume on a friend’s bookshelf during a recent train trip to Salt lake City.

In August of 1986, I left Phillips County with a new divorce and an old car, with three scared kids and some clothes piled in back.  We followed the sun west for hours, climbing mountain passes, crossing river after river, until we spanned the final bridge into Missoula. The kids started school the next morning, and within days I started my freshman year at the University of Montana, the four of us holding hands and stepping together into a world of mountains and shopping malls.

I have to suppose the title is ironic, since the break was anything but clean. First, at thirteen, she fought against turning into a woman, then married a man twice her age whom she started dating at fifteen and married at eighteen. A marriage more of inevitability than choice. 

I was eighteen when I walked down the aisle on my father’s arm. The groom was almost thirty, a man of simple tastes and few passions, staunch honor and little experience. I joined  him at the alter, bristling with independence yet eager to please, desperate for attention yet filled with fierce energy born of old anger—a riddle behind my homemade veil.  From my parents to the unwitting hands of my husband I passed the terrible power of judgment and reward, the absolute authority I connected with love.

Blunt understand how two edged the praise was for tough ranch women. ‘allowed’ to do men’s work, but never to own land or livestock. 

In my real-life, out-west community, the depressing sequel was being written as i watched, and the work parts were harder to skip. I knew women savvy to the working of cattle and horses, women who rode the hay rake in June and took to the fields at harvest. But without exception, they picked up a thank-you and walked back to tackle the work that was theirs alone. Women’s work. If I learned nothing else in my early years, I learned the scorn that twisted those words into insults.

The prose in this book is simple but so beautiful. Hard to believe she did not really start writing until she was in her thirties. I could easily make this review simply a string of quote from the book.

Womanly arts be damned. I wanted the ease, the power, of my mother, horseback. I wanted the real myth, and I set out to get it. 

That fall, as I turned twelve, the sole member of my peer group defected. My cousin Lois turned thirteen and despite our blood-sister oath forbidding such things, she put on a bra, ratted her hair into haystacks and kissed the hired man. I worked on my own appearance with grim determination. I spit and crossed my legs like  field hand. , I peeled my nails off with my teeth, and kept my hair bobbed away from my face. I preferred stacking bales and working cattle, and ducked house chores when I could. I climbed trees, rode the milk pen steers to a standstill and strung frogs ten-deep on a willow spear. I read myself into the strongest characters  of  half the Malta library. I made it last a year. And when, in the inexorable process of time, as my body betrayed me, my rage was terrible....Dark brown hair, sun-faded to the color of  hay, ear length and shaggy, needing a wash. A big, raw-boned girl my mother said. Tall for twelve. A square, horsy face, I thought, yet hidden by owlish glasses, chin jutting like a shoehorn, my father’s chin and his wolfish teeth wrangling for space behind my tight lips...That night I tiptoed to the bathroom, selected a clean sock from the laundry basket and gripped it in my teeth, just in case. After dabbing my bare chest with alcohol, I attempted to lance my breast buds with a darning needle.

Unable to prevent either her periods or her budding breasts, she finally succumbs to adulthood. While many of these little vignettes are sad or frightening, they are not without humor and and told as only a born storyteller can tell them. 

I loved this book. It returned me to the simple joy of reading. Judy Blunt is a tough and brilliant woman who finally broke clean in her thirties and pursued the education she had always dreamed of. She had to defy her husband and her community to do it. She shows us a tough ranch-women’s brand of feminism built in the crucible of hard work and  bearing children.

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