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1 Remote Warehouse Biography- General

Breaking Clean

by

Breaking Clean Cover

ISBN13: 9780375701306
ISBN10: 0375701303
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

I rarely go back to the ranch where I was born or to the neighboring land where I bore the fourth generation of a ranching family. My people live where hardpan and sagebrush flats give way to the Missouri River Breaks, a country so harsh and wild and distant that it must grow its own replacements, as it grows its own food, or it will die. Hereford cattle grow slick and mean foraging along the cutbanks for greasewood shoots and buffalo grass. Town lies an hour or more north over gumbo roads. Our town was Malta, population 2,500, county seat of Phillips County, Montana, and the largest settlement for nearly one hundred miles in any direction.

“Get tough,” my father snapped as I dragged my feet at the edge of a two-acre potato field. He gave me a gunnysack and started me down the rows pulling the tough fanweed that towered over the potato plants. I was learning then the necessary lessons of weeds and seeds and blisters. My favorite story as a child was of how I fainted in the garden when I was eight. My mother had to pry my fingers from around the handle of the hoe, she said, and she also said I was stupid not to wear a hat in the sun. But she was proud. My granddad hooted with glee when he heard about it.

“Shes a hell of a little worker,” he said, shaking his head. I was a hell of a little worker from that day forward, and I learned to wear a hat.

I am sometimes amazed at my own children, their outrage if they are required to do the dishes twice in one week, their tender self-absorption with minor bumps and bruises. As a mom, Ive had to teach myself to croon over thorn scratches, admire bloody baby teeth and sponge the dirt from scraped shins. But in my mind, my mothers voice and that of her mother still compete for expression. “Oh for Christs sake, you arent hurt!” theyre saying, and for a moment I struggle. For a moment I want to tell this new generation about my little brother calmly spitting out a palm full of tooth chips and wading back in to grab the biggest calf in the branding pen. I want to tell them how tough I was, falling asleep at the table with hands too sore to hold a fork, or about their grandmother, who cut off three fingers on the blades of a mower and finished the job before she came in to get help. For a moment Im terrified Ill slip and tell them to get tough.

Like my parents and grandparents, I was born and trained to live there. I could rope and ride and jockey a John Deere as well as my brothers, but being female, I also learned to bake bread and can vegetables and reserve my opinion when the men were talking. When a bachelor neighbor began courting me when I was fifteen, my parents were proud and hopeful. Though he was twelve years older than I was, his other numbers were very promising. He and his father ran five hundred cow-calf pairs and five hundred head of yearlings on 36,000 acres of range.

After supper one spring evening, my mother and I stood in the kitchen. She held her back stiff as her hands shot like pistons into the mound of bread dough on the counter. I stood tough beside her. On the porch, John had presented my father with a bottle of whiskey and was asking Dads permission to marry me. I wanted her to grab my cold hand and tell me how to run. I wanted her to smooth the crumpled letter from the garbage can and read the praise of my high school principal. I wanted her to tell me what I could be.

She rounded the bread neatly and efficiently and began smoothing lard over the top, intent on her fingers as they tidied the loaves.

“Hes a good man,” she said finally.

In the seventh grade, my daughter caught up with the culture shock and completed her transition from horse to bicycle, from boot-cut Levis to acid-washed jeans. She delighted me with her discoveries. Knowing little of slumber parties, roller skates or packs of giggling girls, sometimes I was more her peer than her parent. She wrote, too, long sentimental stories about lost puppies that found homes and loving two-parent families with adventurous daughters. Her characters were usually right back where they started, rescued and happy, by the end of the story. Shed begun watching television.

“Do you hate Daddy?” she asked once, from the depths of a divorced childs sadness.

“Your daddy,” I replied, “is a good man.”

* * *

In the manner of good ranchmen, my father and John squatted on their haunches on the porch facing each other. The whiskey bottle rested on the floor between them. Johns good white shirt was buttoned painfully around his neck. Dad had pushed his Stetson back, and a white band of skin glowed above his dark face, smooth and strangely delicate. When I moved to the doorway, their conversation was shifting from weather and cattle to marriage. As Dad tilted back heavily on one heel to drink from the neck of the bottle, John looked down and began to plot our life with one finger in the dust on the floor.

“I been meaning to stop by . . . ,” John said to the toe of his boot. He looked up to catch Dads eye. Dad nodded and looked away.

“You figured a spot yet?” He spoke deliberately, weighing each word. Like all the big ranches out there, Johns place had been pieced together from old homesteads and small farms turned back to grass.

“Morgan place has good buildings,” John replied, holding Dads gaze for a moment. He shifted the bottle to his lips and passed it back to Dad.

“Fair grass on the north end, but the meadows need work,” Dad challenged. John shifted slightly to the left, glancing to the west through the screen door. The setting sun was balanced on the blue tips of the pines in the distance. He worked at the stiffness of his collar, leaving gray smudges of dust along his throat. Settling back, he spoke with a touch of defiance.

“If a person worked it right . . .” Then his eyes found his boots again. He held his head rigid, waiting.

Dad smoothed one hand along his jaw as if in deep thought, and the two men squatted silently for several minutes. Then Dad drew a long breath and blew it out.

“Old Morgan used to get three cuttings in a rain year,” he said at last. Johns head rose and he met my fathers steady look.

“A person might make a go of it,” John agreed softly. Dads shoulders lifted slightly and dropped in mock defeat. He placed a hand on each knee and pushed himself up, John rising beside him, and they shook hands, grinning. Twisting suddenly, Dad reached down and grabbed the whiskey. He held it high in a toast, then leaned forward and tapped Johns chest with the neck of the bottle.

“And you, you cocky sonofabitch! Dont you try planting anything too early, understand?” They were still laughing when they entered the kitchen.

I talk to my father twice a year now, on Christmas and Fathers Day. We talk about the yearling weights and the rain, or the lack of rain. When I moved away from our community, my parents lost a daughter, but they will have John forever, as a neighbor, a friend. He is closer to them in spirit than I am in blood, and shares their bewilderment and anger at my rejection of their way of life. As the ultimate betrayal, I have taken Johns sons, interrupting the perfect rites of passage. The move was hardest on the boys, for here they were only boys. At the ranch they were men-in-training, and they mourned this loss of prestige.

“I used to drive tractor for my dad,” the elder son once told his friends, and they scoffed. “Youre only eleven years old,” they laughed, and he was frustrated to bitter tears. He would go back to the ranch, that one. He would have to. But he returned there an outsider, as his father knew he would. He did not stay. The first son of the clan to cross the county line and survive found it easier to leave a second time, when he had to. Had he chosen to spend his life there, he would have had memories of symphonies and tennis shoes and basketball. When he marries and has children, he will raise them knowing that, at least sometimes, cowboys do cry.

I stuck with the bargain sealed on my parents porch for more than twelve years, although my faith in martyrdom as a way of life dwindled. I collected children and nervous tics the way some of the women collected dress patterns and ceramic owls. It was hard to shine when all the good things had already been done. Dorothy crocheted tissue covers and made lampshades from Styrofoam egg cartons. Pearle looped thick, horrible rugs from rags and denim scraps. Helen gardened a half acre of land and raised two hundred turkeys in her spare time. And everyone attended the monthly meetings of the Near and Far Club to answer roll call with her favorite new recipe.

These were the successful ranchwomen who moved from barn to kitchen to field with patient, tireless steps. For nearly ten years, I kept up with the cycles of crops and seasons and moons, and I did it all well. I excelled. But in the end, I couldnt sleep. I quit eating. It wasnt enough.

I saved for three years and bought my typewriter from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. I typed the first line while the cardboard carton lay around it in pieces. I wrote in a cold sweat on long strips of freezer paper that emerged from the keys thick and rich with ink. At first I only wrote at night when the children and John slept, emptying myself onto the paper until I could lie down. Then I began writing during the day, when the men were working in the fields. The children ran brown and wild and happy. The garden gave birth and died with rotting produce fat under its vines. The community buzzed. Dorothy offered to teach me how to crochet.

A prescribed distance of beige plush separated us. On a TV monitor nearby, zigzag lines distorted our images. Johns face looked lean and hard. My face showed fear and exhaustion. The years were all there in black and white. Mike, our marriage counselor, stood behind the video camera adjusting the sound level. We were learning to communicate, John and I. We each held a sweaty slip of paper with a list of priority topics we had prepared for this day. Our job was to discuss them on camera. Next week we would watch our debate and learn what areas needed improvement. We talked by turns, neither allowed to interrupt the other, for three minutes on each topic.

John was indignant, bewildered by my topics. I, on the other hand, could have written his list myself. Somewhere in a dusty file drawer is a film of an emaciated, haggard woman hesitantly describing her needs and dreams to a tight-jawed man who twists his knuckles and shakes his head because he wants to interrupt her and he cant. His expression shows that he doesnt know this woman; shes something he never bargained for. When its over, they are both shaking and glad to get away.

“John,” Mike once asked, “how often do you tell your wife that you love her?”

“Oh, Ive told her that before,” he replied cautiously. I cut into the conversation from my corner of the ring.

“You only told me you loved me once, and that was the day we were married,” I said.

“Well,” John said, injured and defensive, “I never took it back, did I?”

The break, when it came, was so swift and clean that I sometimes dream I went walking in the coulee behind the ranch house and emerged on the far side of the mountains. Its different here—not easier, but different. And its enough.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Restless Mind, November 30, 2009 (view all comments by Restless Mind)
Exquisite prose layered into essays that sneak up on you and tell you things about growing up in the 70s, and about being a girl/woman in a boy's/man's world, and about coming of age as a wife/mother and then as a student/writer. Blunt writes beautifully about the landscape of Montana and the ranching family and culture that shaped her and from which, finally, she had to uncouple herself in order to become the writer who has gifted us with this book. I felt invited into a world I knew nothing about, and ended grateful to have made the journey.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780375701306
Afterword:
Blunt, Judy
Author:
Blunt, Judy
Author:
Blunt, Judy
Afterword by:
Blunt, Judy
Afterword:
Blunt, Judy
Publisher:
Vintage Books
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
Biography
Subject:
Women
Subject:
Montana
Subject:
Ranch life
Subject:
Women ranchers
Subject:
Personal Memoirs
Subject:
Biography - General
Subject:
memoir;montana;women;american west;non-fiction;biography;autobiography;fiction;western
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage
Series Volume:
vol. 14, no. 8 (A)
Publication Date:
20030131
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
1 MAP 1 ILLUSTRATION
Pages:
320
Dimensions:
8.56x6.96x.68 in. .52 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Biography » General
Biography » Women
History and Social Science » Pacific Northwest » Montana

Breaking Clean Used Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780375701306 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Staunch and unblinking. . . . If there is a trace of sentimentality [in Breaking Clean] I couldn't find it, which is why this book is such a valuable addition to the literature of place and the literature of passage."
"Review" by , "[Judy Blunt] has turned the memories of her childhood and young adulthood into a beautifully written memoir that is a meditation on how land and her life will always be intertwined ."
"Review" by , "In Breaking Clean, Blunt strikes a delightfully tense, unsteady balance and . . . like an accomplished bucking bronco rider... masterfully maintains it throughout a wild-ride of a memoir."
"Review" by , "A remarkable literary achievement. It is destined to be a classic in the literature of Western women; excerpts should end up in school anthologies for their brilliant evocation of blizzards and one-room schools." Sandra Scofield, The Oregonian
"Review" by , "What makes Blunt's book different from anything I've ever read about the West is the delicate eloquence with which she captures the cost of these hard lives on people's souls....Judy Blunt is such a natural writer and this book is so good, it's unthinkable to imagine that she might have never pursued this craft."
"Review" by , "Judy Blunt lived in a beloved country among beloved people. She grew up knowing blizzards and good horses, working cattle all day and then getting dinner on the table, impassable roads to town and babies with raging fevers — a resolute country girl who became a ranch wife on the shortgrass plains of Montana. And she tells of leaving, the price of insisting on her right to fashion her own life. Breaking Clean is vivid and compelling, a classical American memoir."
"Review" by , "A memoir with the fierce narrative force of an eastern Montana blizzard, rich in story and character, filled with the bone-chilling details of Blunt?s childhood. She writes without bitterness, with an abiding love of the land and the work and her family and friends that she finally left behind, at great sacrifice, to begin to write. This is a magnificent achievement, a book for the ages. I?ve never read anything that compares with it." James Crumley, author of
"Review" by , "[An] astonishing literary debut, a dramatic and heartbreaking memoir...honed from difficult circumstances and crackling with energy long pent up...Having prevailed over a life of extreme isolation, Blunt manages to escape with poetry and feeling intact, singularly able to relive, with both aching honesty and occasional joy, a fascinating, ferocious coming of age."
"Review" by , "Blunt is, to put it another way, scarily good — so right on, so focused, so in-your-face that you have to take the book slowly to cushion the blow....She writes without remorse, without flinching, striking matches off the scuffed soles of her feelings. When a writer can do that — make it real and make it matter — the world comes almost painfully alive."
"Review" by , "No biographical sketch of Blunt can convey the depth of this literary achievement....Inheriting the literary territory previously claimed by Ingalls Wilder and Cather, Blunt (who's just been named a Whiting Writers' Award recipient) builds on their accomplishments, yet marks American literature in her own way. To shoehorn this into mere category or classification is to insult its power. Profound, and profoundly moving."
"Review" by , "In its precise, arresting descriptions of a working farm and its careful re-creation of how Blunt ultimately came to break free, this masterful debut is utterly strange, suspenseful and surprising — a story whose threads connecting past and present are as transparent as cobwebs but as strong as barbed wire."
"Review" by , "Blunt's attention to detail and dry humor make this debut emboldening. Her writing inspires respect for rural life and its 'intimacy born of isolation, rather than blood relation.'"
"Review" by , "A lover of land in a land almost unlivable, a natural matriarch born and bred to patriarchy, a seer of complex truths among admirers of terse adages, Judy Blunt seems, at a glance, a classic misfit. But in this miracle of memoir she transcends the misfit's rancor to tell a story heroic, from beginning to end, for its perfect pitch. Breaking Clean is not mercilessly but mercifully honest. Doing what it must to free its stunning song, it leaves the culture, the land, and even the husband it rejects their dignity. It is a masterpiece."
"Review" by , "Beautifully written . . . A lyrical account of [Judy Blunt's] struggle to escape the isolation and restriction of ranch life while, at the same time, honoring the ways in which such a far-flung community can come together in times of crisis and celebration. . . . Heartbreaking, mesmerizing, dramatic, crafted with a keen eye toward detail and a poet's sense of language, this memoir breaks new ground and brings a fresh perspective to the myth of rugged individualism that has for so long defined the rural West. Blunt's contribution to the literature of the West is enormous, but her contribution to the genre of memoir is even greater."
"Review" by , "[Blunt] dissolves the romantic myths that shroud what is in fact a perpetually embattled way of life, one she both reveres and reviles. Hopefully, Blunt will keep honig her keen and poetic awareness, steely candor, and commanding storytelling skills and continue telling the true story of women in the West."
"Synopsis" by , This bestselling literary debut--now available in paperback--is the true story of a remarkable woman's life in the contemporary American West, where the lessons she learned carried her through blizzards, devastating prairie fires, and extreme isolation. 1 map. 1 illustration.
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