Raised on a Montana ranch four hours from the nearest cities of any size (Great Falls and Billings), offered in marriage at age eighteen by her father to a neighboring rancher twelve years her senior, Judy Blunt spent the first thirty years of her life circumscribed by traditions and responsibilities handed down by the generations of homesteaders who worked the land before her.
"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," Blunt writes in Breaking Clean.
"Mine was the first generation of women that grew up able to think about themselves as separate from their families and their ranches," she explained at Powell's. "To say 'I must do this for myself' was a tremendously arrogant and frowned upon venture."
In Blunt's evocative prose we encounter a life alternately brutal and breathtaking, a woman torn between the confining responsibilities of motherhood on an isolated family ranch and the contradictory desire for self-expression.
"No biographical sketch of Blunt can convey the depth of this literary achievement," Kirkus Reviews raved. "To shoehorn this into mere category of classification is to insult its power." Reviewers everywhere agree. The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Adventure...Breaking Clean is the most acclaimed debut of the season.
Dave: The early reviews of Breaking Clean have been phenomenal. Congratulations. It's a great book.
Judy Blunt: Five weeks into it, it's a little bit bewildering. Particularly, I think, because it's nonfiction and people aren't as excited about the story or the book as much as they are interested and curious about me. For as private a person as I am, it can be overwhelming.
Today I've had four interviews and I was in front of a classroom full of kids for an hour, then still to come there's the reading tonight. I can't imagine what I haven't said about myself already.
Dave: What did you talk about with the kids?
Blunt: A lot of them are curious about becoming a writer, what it takes to write. Writing process. This was at Madison High School, freshman and sophomores. They're curious about things. They can associate with me at age thirteen, being sent to high school as I was, boarded out. I had my own checking account, and I had my own job - that to them is wildly interesting.
I find it interesting to listen to them. They're so diversified out there. I think of the times when we would sneak away to read - that was our treat to ourselves. These kids aren't doing that, certainly not in the numbers we did when there was no television, no other means of escape. Even as a young kid it was a huge luxury to flop down to read behind a piece of farm machinery that was parked by the garage where you wouldn't be found. You couldn't do it in the house because you'd be rooted out and put to work.
Dave: Adults nowadays talk about trying to set aside some amount of leisure time for themselves, but in cities or suburbs, at least, leisure time for kids is virtually assumed. It's not unusual at all for kids to have nothing but leisure time when they're not in school. Given your upbringing, raising your own children off the ranch must have been a challenge.
Blunt: I had to compromise a certain amount when it came to raising my own kids because we didn't have the same types of work available once I'd left the ranch. But by the same token, if they wanted $50 jeans, it was up to my daughter to baby-sit or do whatever she had to do; the boys stomped boxes at Grizzly Grocery and earned their own candy and pop money.
When I was sanding floors, I took them to work with me and let them see how it was that I came by my money. A lot of the requests stopped immediately. They would be in agony after one hour, and I would say, "That's ten dollars after taxes." That made them truly aware when they did get things what the sacrifice might have been to get it.
They didn't get a lot of stuff. I guess they felt terribly deprived at the time, but they're beginning to see how that might have worked out okay.
Dave: Nowadays, it's such a strange idea to live in America and be so thoroughly cut off from the rest of the world. You had contact with your parents, your siblings, and maybe some neighboring ranchers - but until the sixties, no t.v., no newspaper, no radio from beyond your immediate vicinity... How do you learn who you are when you have virtually no contact with the outside world?
Blunt: You discovered who you are through them. They tell you who you are.
I was a storyteller. It truly shaped who I came to be. People will say, "Did you keep a diary? How do you remember these things?" No, I observed terribly closely. I was a watcher, and I learned the stories of things.
I learned to talk to adults when I was very young. Learning to talk and say things correctly, learning to be attentive always to what they were saying and what was going on...I was the kid under the kitchen table when they were talking; I was the one being run out of the corner where I'd sneaked in to listen to the grown-ups talk.
My sense of self beyond the community...I had none, really. I couldn't imagine myself beyond the community because I couldn't imagine any life beyond the community. I'd never seen it.
I think it comes back around in a sense. People will say, "How did you get the idea that you could leave the ranch and go to school and become a writer?" I didn't get that idea. I'm still working on it. I didn't come to that conclusion. I simply came to the conclusion, sadly, that I could not be there. And if I could not stay there, then I followed the list of options that opened up beyond that.
Dave: How intimidating was Missoula when you arrived there?
Blunt: Pretty terrifying. I spent a little over a year in Malta after I left the ranch, doing logistics and details. I worked two or three jobs and saved some money. When I finally came across the mountains, my kids started school the next day. For a couple weeks, I would drop them off, then I would study a road map to learn my way around Missoula.
I enrolled at the University of Montana, then set about overachieving simply because I was terrified that I would fail. I had nothing to go home to, nowhere to go if I did. I couldn't fail. I could not allow that to happen.
I was amazed the first quarter when I got straight A's. And the second quarter, and the third quarter, and the fourth and the fifth...By the time I was in the sixth quarter in my second year of school and still had straight A's, it was like, So, this isn't a fluke. If I do this, this, and this... I began to look at it just like a job. But...you make the living that way, but you don't make the life.
It's been a process of about ten years of making a life there, and finding the community in Missoula, a writers' community, a community of people who meet to talk about books and everything but books, people who argue ideas and talk about things. There are readings and events almost every night of the week if you care to go out. Also the anonymity so that if you care to go to the grocery store you're not writing apologies because you forgot to wave to Henry on the corner. There are enough people there to disappear when I have to.
Dave: The description of your father-in-law taking a sledgehammer to your typewriter is cited in most reviews. It's a very strong image.
Blunt: I was attempting to express another part of myself, a part of myself that was not necessary to the ranch. I was taking a class from Great Falls college via teleconference telephone calls. I'd drive once a week to the library to see my professor on videotape. I was writing homework for that.
In all practical sense, I understood quite thoroughly why no one wanted me to take classes and to write. I was growing away from my role on the place, and it was getting in the way of my real job. There's no room for slack there. I was needed. The sort of jobs I had to do every day, including the three kids, were not high status jobs by any stretch, but they were necessary. If I didn't do them, somebody else had to. So I understood, even at the time. People think I should be really upset by it, but I'm not. It's just how things were out there.
I make my decision to leave a year later.
Dave: In the chapter called "Salvage," you recreate ranch life during the storm of December 1964. How much of that chapter came from memory and how much came from talking to your parents and reconstructing events? You were nine or ten years old at the time. The chapter opens with a description of jackrabbits gathering in the snow, probably something you saw many times in later winters.
Blunt: Yes, that's more of a composite picture. There were some things that I could guess at enough to narrate as an omniscient voice. I become the voice of the storm there for a while, just because, I suppose, it was kicky to do. But some things I knew from common sense just because I knew what the results were.
Most of that came down to me in stories I would listen to for years afterward. They still talk about the winter of '64 and '65 - people still have their stories of it - although men, ranchers of my father's generation, are beginning to die off or move away, so those stories are being lost.
I also interviewed my father. I sat down and tape-recorded it. The areas in the chapter where he's speaking are verbatim. Not that I was surprised by the story he told. He assumed my knowledge of the cattle - because I do remember the cattle in the sheds and the smell of the place, and of course the ears and boots that would show up in the manure piles, these sorts of things were among the artifacts of my childhood. But I saw it as a child - I'd heard the stories as a child listens to pirate stories - and what I was trying to get from him was an adult perspective.
I wanted a clear connection of what it all meant to him. I'd expected that to be helplessness in the face of these life-threatening problems. There was some of that, but also just bewilderment that no matter what a man did, it didn't matter. There was no way around this. The consequences of this storm were going to be, and there was nothing for it.
You take a true pioneer, by golly, and they shape that land to suit themselves. The idea that it could take it back like that, I think, was a real moment for him.
Dave: It also illuminates the relationship between your family and the animals on the ranch. This is a small farm. Your father can probably identify just about all of his cattle individually, so there's a real balance between how much care he takes for those animals and the clear understanding of why those animals are there.
Blunt: Right: the bid'ness. But it's not all business - they're living creatures. Part of it too is just the sense of pride. He's a proud man. He's got an eighth grade education - he hasn't extended himself beyond Phillips County - but he knows his land and his cows. He's got a Ph.D. in his cows. And he has the pride in a business well run. If the cows were to become sick or injured or ill or thin, God help us, from some doing of his, then he would not be a good rancher, and see, that's what he is: he's a good rancher. Doing a good job - those cows, they're his proof.
But the business is that they're beef cattle. They're not pets - and that's the other side of it. We grew up knowing that, but like most kids we pushed the boundaries constantly. Hell, I raised skunks on a bottle. Vermin! We put out strychnine eggs for them back before they outlawed strychnine - and I raised them on a bottle!
Dave: Another great scene - which made me wonder how long it will be before someone tries to make this into a film; the story is so cinematic in places - the way you describe your sister playing in front of the bull:
Snowbanks drawing back from the barn leave shadows on the boards. A short distance from there an Angus bull, a recent purchase and nearly full grown, lies on a knoll, forefeet tucked under his brisket. The way his features merge in the sunshine, black on black, he might have passed for a hole in the scenery. Only the silhouette gives him away: sloping face, neck humped a size wider than the head, one smooth line drawn around a ton of black bull. Still, a bull soaking up the sun, even a large one, was no novelty in our barnyard. What draws my mother's eyes to this one is Gail, three years old and all of thirty pounds, rolling on the ground in front of him.
You're isolated from other people, but your lives are so entwined with these animals.
Blunt: And it's not something I paid particular attention to. Everyone around us was like that.
We were a bit different in that we allowed cats around the house instead of keeping them away. We liked our house kitties, as long as my father wasn't around.
My mother has an incredible soft spot for horses. She's an incredible horsewoman, herself, and still rides at age seventy-eight. She'd let the horses up around the yard, and there'd be four or five of us in a row on the back of old Socks. Our mother would slip the halter off and just let him graze. That was her babysitter. We couldn't get down! While she was working in the garden, he'd walk around with us on his back.
That sense of growing up with the animals as part of our world, regardless of how we learned to read their roles...we grew up not being afraid of horses or cattle. I can remember walking across a corral, dodging around cattle, and I wasn't very old because I remember being conscious of hunters or whoever being concerned that I was down there among the cows. I remember thinking just eye-rollingly about their ignorance. Why would you be afraid of cattle?! All you had to do was show them who was boss. And I wasn't very big then, certainly not big enough to see over their backs.
Dave: The birthing scene at the end of the book provides quite a climax. As I read that scene I was thinking, God, I hope this turns out okay.
Blunt: Sometimes it didn't.
Dave: Based on what had come before in the book, I really didn't know what would happen. That's life, right? But I did wonder what happened afterwards. According to the general standards imposed on that ranch, it didn't sound as if you should have ever started birthing that calf on your own.
Blunt: It's one of those things where you get involved in something and you either cut and run early or you see it through. There's no way to stop halfway through that process, when the calf is half-out. Not when that means going to the house, waking somebody, waiting for him to get back out. The calf would definitely be dead.
That calf, I knew, was alive. I couldn't put him back once I got him started. It's what any of the men would have done if they were out there. I think I was more hesitant because I thought I would be called to question more for not coming to get help, whereas I had seen the hired man do hideous things without consequence.
I pulled dozens of calves over the course of the years. We did our own Caesareans. I was involved with a lot of the birthing-type work. Sometimes it did not turn out okay. I remember a rancher down the creek talk about pulling a calf in half. Mercy. Don't want to be there. We broke legs on calves, pulling them, but it gets into gratuitous violence to describe the snap of green bone. It doesn't even break cleanly, those soft bones. [shivers]
There's something about the prowess of having grown up in a place where one learns to do so many things and to feel competent in a lot of little areas. Finding dead calves on the range and knowing how to check them for clues: Did this calf ever draw breath? Did the coyotes kill it or were they just feeding on it? That being part of our daily ride through the cows.
That type of thing I think I miss. I don't miss the life as much as I miss the ability to use the many things that filled my brain for so many years. I can walk around my block in Missoula and look for dead calves, you know, but cows aren't calving there. So it seems like I've spent a whole lot of my life learning the intimate details of a place and I now have no place for them.
I look around this town [Portland, Oregon], and I think, Could I ever learn to drive here? Could I ever learn to live here? I'm not sure that I have that one more brave step in me. I did that in Missoula.
Dave: Jill Ker Conway was here recently. She grew up on a ranch in the Australian outback before moving to Sydney and finally North America. In one of her books, When Memory Speaks, which is about the art of autobiography, she makes the point that autobiography written by women has traditionally told the story of a woman being acted upon. Women were never the protagonists in their own stories. So she talks about her own childhood, growing up in the forties and fifties in Australia, looking for female role models in books and not finding them. I thought that was interesting in relation to Breaking Clean because, in a sense, your whole book is about trying to become a protagonist. Doing something of your own volition.
Blunt: People will announce that they think the book is about how I escaped from this life of cruel whatever it was, which is sort of a joke. I think the book is far more about thirteen years of trying hard to stay where I was meant to be, in a sense, and discovering finally that I could not be there.
Coming to that conclusion, you're right: mine was the first generation of women that grew up able to think about themselves as separate from their families and their ranches. To say "I must do this for myself" was a tremendously arrogant and frowned upon venture. There was no support for it. People to this day still ask, "Why did she leave?" No one knows why I left. It's as though there had to have been a secret there somewhere.
I was of the first generation that was allowed to leave for no reason. My husband didn't beat me. He wasn't a drunk. He wasn't a womanizer. I simply couldn't stay. And my leaving, as opposed to the way women left before when it had been sort of like Kate Chopin's The Awakening: they walk into the ocean, metaphorically, one way or the other...they clicked off. I knew women there that I would say are probably chronically depressed. Little joy in life. Shrewish, irritable, not happy people. That's how they left - they just quit. I didn't want to do that.
Dave: You say you were a storyteller. How were you exposed to stories outside of your environment, other than the stories you were hearing in your house?
Blunt: Outside of my community, as far as my region, I think I visited Fort Peck once. Late in the one-room country school I think they took us on a field trip. I didn't know anything about Fort Peck; I learned more about it after I left. I'd never been to the Custer battlefield, never been to any of the places in Montana. I saw Yellowstone Park once, saw Glacier Park once during my childhood.
All I knew were the stories of families back two or three generations. Listening to Josephine Henderson talk about the Depression years when the dads all left and tried to find work somewhere, following threshing crews, doing whatever they could do, leaving the women and children on the ranch to fend for themselves. There wasn't a grasshopper within five miles of most of those homestead shacks. They ate everything. She'd talk about grinding corn, grinding wheat and eating it. Mercy.
Collecting those stories. Coming to write about them was pretty much an accident. I moved to Missoula to go to journalism school. I had worked for the Phillips County News, and I thought, Well, I can do that. In the conservative practice of never starting anything unless you know you can do it, I came there to be a journalist. That very first essay, the book's first chapter in all of its lumps and warts, was a classroom assignment that turned me toward creative writing.
Meeting other women in Missoula who'd been raised on Indian reservations, raised in steel towns, raised in logging camps, and coming to understand that geography is the only thing that separated us as far as our stories were concerned...So much of what we learned of ourselves, what was taught to us through our cultures, was the same. In sharing stories with them I got the courage to begin telling my own. Not that mine was so hideous; I was more embarrassed by it, being raised in this backwater place, knowing how to flank a calf and hog-tie, but not much else. The geography of the book, I think, makes it unique. The rest of it, even taking place in the sixties and the seventies when America was learning to talk the talk; well, it still wasn't walking the walk - the story of women being closed down is not so new or special.
Dave: When you were thirteen, you went off to high school in Malta. That's where you were first exposed to some of those ideas: feminism, equal rights...I would not imagine these were words that reached the ranch.
Blunt: No, even after I learned about them.
Dave: I wondered about that. Going back with that in your head...You write about your son, for instance, who left the ranch with you and later returned to find that he wasn't able to assimilate anymore.
Blunt: That's the best and the worst. Kids are incredibly adaptable, though.
I was thirteen, fourteen years old, just learning about this feminism thing, but it was going on out there. Believe it or not, it never gave me any cause to interpret my own community through the eyes of feminism.
Women were strong in my community. They were not especially self-directed - they were doing what they did for the good of the ranch - but these were tremendously strong women that cared for their elderly parents, their children, their husband. They were not self-directed in the sense that they weren't sitting up and saying, "I think I want to take classes in literature." They did not separate themselves from their families. They did not think of themselves as separate entities. They were so-and-so's wife or so-and-so's Mom. They're tremendously good hearted people, wonderful people.
That outside interpretation of feminism doesn't apply directly to ranching anyway. It's a hard sell in the West because a lot of the roles on the ranch are defined by practicality as much as anything, and part of that practicality does have to do with biology. You don't put your pregnant wife on the swather while you stay in the house and peel potatoes. It just doesn't make sense physically. Once there are children on the ground, whoever's nursing the baby probably should be the one staying with him. Things are defined differently where there's no childcare. And ours was a pretty rare ranch. Most places are close enough to a highway so the woman can be a schoolteacher or she works at a bank; she has her own career. She carries her kid to daycare. Our situation was fairly unusual in that the women couldn't work outside the home unless they lived separately from their husband and drove back and forth on the weekends or something.
Dave: What are you reading these days?
Blunt: I just got done with Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and loved it. I thought it was a very interesting, very difficult story, very brashly told. I liked her tone. She doesn't beg very many questions throughout. I was impressed with her style. Out at the ranch, we would say she's "ballsy." She's also fairly talented.
Right now I'm catching up on the canon. Now that I'm teaching a nonfiction class at the University of Montana I can justify the time to read a lot of the old classics. Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain is on my list.
The reception to this book has been amazing. Five weeks, and it's like having another part-time job, dealing with phone calls and letters from ranch wives that live in Billings now and are eighty-nine years old; they've read my book now and sit and write me pages and pages of their experiences. They thank me for writing about it. I can't not respond to that. I can't not let them know that their voices are heard and their voices are important because in many cases the ones that do call me, their voices will be shaking, they'll be nervous. I can't tell them to go away. It's a tremendous tribute to know that they've been affected by the book and that they feel more strongly compelled by their own story now that they know it's okay to talk.
Judy Blunt visited Powell's
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State