“Bound Like Grass”
University of Oklahoma Press
Selected as a High Plains Book Award finalist in the first-book category, Ruth McLaughlin’s “Bound Like Grass” is a worthy addition to the rich tradition of memoirs concerning ranch and farm life. Like Judy Blunt, Ivan Doig, and Mary Clearman Blew, McLaughlin grew up on a ranch, and this central fact of her childhood is a formative influence on her writing, and her subject in this, her first book.
McLaughlin’s writing is crisp and evocative, if occasionally a bit too briskly paced. It would be helpful if she more consistently distinguished between her two sets of grandparents, for example, and in one scene at the end, we find her opening a shed door before she has clearly left her car. But for the most part, the evocations of farms and small towns, kitchens and sheds, are elegant, compact and engaging.
McLaughlin’s brutal honesty immunizes her against the self-righteousness sometimes evident in agrarian writing, and her story offers as much of failure as it does of heroism. She searches several county seats for information about a homesteader suicide, for example. But her attention is mostly devoted to the pioneers’ descendents, who are not only beset by the loneliness of wide open spaces but also by their own pettiness and indifference. They are careless about important things in a way that Wendell Berry or Linda Hasselstrom would never admit to. Their crimped lifestyle is seen as obsessive, their Depression upbringing leading them to melodramatic excesses of deprivation, not only for themselves but for their children as well.
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of “Bound Like Grass” is the vividness of its portrayals. Though her family members exemplify universal situations — the aggrieved son feeling betrayed by a cold father or the aunt who escaped to a sunnier life in California — McLaughlin presents her family members as unique individuals. Her brother, for example, who cultivates a displaced but thoroughly informed interest in farm machinery, emerges with the clarity of a character in a novel, as does her sister Rosemary, whose innate ability with language combines with an equally ingrained social ineptitude to produce an original manner of speaking that, though eccentric, seems utterly genuine. “You jest!” she responds to a high school cheerleader suggesting that she might have a crush on an English teacher. She reminds a bully who snaps her pencils that “It is inconsiderate to destroy property!”
McLaughlin recognizes the determination of the prairie rancher. After a disastrous attempt to disarm an old cyanide predator bomb he finds, her maternal grandfather manages to drive himself to town and then, despite a bleak prognosis, to live for another eleven years. But equally important to her are the family’s flaws. It is McLaughlin herself, an inexperienced teenager, who drives her grandmother to the hospital to visit her purportedly dying husband, her parents too busy or too timid to take on this expected duty. Descending from a homesteader family may be something to be proud of, but that legacy, combined with the demands of the land, can be overwhelming, the grass ultimately more enduring than human attempts to shape it into sustenance.
Bernard Quetchenbach teaches at MSU Billings. His most recent book is “The Hermit’s Place,” from Wild Leaf Press.