From Jack Schaefer to Gretel Ehrlich and Annie Proulx, writers associated with the American West often hang their hats in other regions. They come to Wyoming or Montana to exploit its unique qualities for a cosmopolitan market. They play up the spectacular landscapes, the tortured and lonesome people. Their books often do quite well.
Jamie Lisa Forbes, author of a High Plains Book Awards finalist in the short story category, offers something different. With “The Widow Smalls and Other Stories,” Forbes writes about an intimate West with characters shaped not by heroic visions but by social and economic limitations. Granted, some of the voices sound suspiciously like those of “Gunsmoke” heavies: “Commotion leaked from the walls like I ain’t heard in years.” But Forbes’ people have real hearts and battle real, sometimes subtle, problems. She is particularly skillful in portraying the helplessness of the individual pitted against a social system that makes little room for idiosyncrasies. And it is her understanding of the intensity that characterizes small-town life and family relationships that makes Forbes, a Wyoming native, so effective.
The collection’s first story, “Ramona Dietz,” does not so much focus on the victim of an incestuous relationship as on its outside observer. Ramona herself remains two-dimensional. Readers know her lot is horrible; there is little more to learn. What we must think about, however, is the appropriate reaction to a world that tells us to look the other way.
Similarly, in “Lincoln’s Nephew,” the central figure is not the somewhat hapless handyman who resembles the Civil War president and claims to be his relation. It is really the narrator, Lawrence Yarborough, who has, in effect, grown up to be a sort of Lincoln’s nephew himself.
In digging below standard Western conventions, Forbes re-evaluates female power as well. Her two longer stories detail the inner lives of people who are offered the chance to define themselves in ways not dictated by circumstance. The first of these longer pieces, “The Good War,” utilizes another oblique focus as the main character turns out not to be the story’s thematic center. Instead, his mother, a beaten-down ranch wife, a woman often on the verge of psychological crisis, shapes the family, the plot and its meaning.
The second novella-length story, “The Widow Smalls,” is, perhaps, the most skillful in the collection. Here, again, the reader’s expectations are met and then undermined when Leah Smalls must run the ranch her husband has left her. But, though we seem to witness the usual struggle of woman against nature or woman against male expectations, what Forbes really gives us is a woman battling herself and her own prejudices — in other words, a complex individual. The story ends just as we want it to, but the ending is in no way contrived.
With “The Widow Smalls and Other Stories,” Forbes proves a wry and ironic — and yet deeply empathetic and authentic — observer of the rural West.
Cara Chamberlain is the author of two poetry collections, “Hidden Things” and “The Divine Botany.” She lives in Billings and works as a freelance editor.