A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend about hiking. He asked me in both a rhetorical and whimsical manner why it is that humans feel the need to summit mountains. While giving him my own theory (it involves the mystery of Mother Nature, the accomplishment felt after reaching a set goal, and our innate hubris) I realized that my speculation was based on an answer a character in a memoir gave when she was asked the same question. This genre is powerful, with stories hitting so close that sometimes you can’t remember whether you had a real conversation about mountains or read about it in a book.
The memoirs this month include two ranching stories. Thanks to these two books, I now know the difference between a yearling and a heifer even though I’ve never been to Wyoming or Montana.
Andrews, Bryce. Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. Atria. Jan. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9781476710839. $25.MEMOIR
This is the story of Andrews’s year spent on the Sun Ranch in southwest Montana building fences, checking cisterns, and protecting the cattle from predators. He realizes his plan to keep wolf packs at bay using a fence of twine and plastic flagging may be ill-hatched when a local woman tells him he’ll need “A real gun, a rifle. With bullets.” What follows is the story of a young man coming to grips with nature and the sacrifices that ranching entails. VERDICT Never wanting to be labeled “the boy who cried wolf,” Andrews gives such an intimate portrait of ranch life that readers will feel their hands are dirty with the grime that comes with protecting calves from wild animals out on the range.
Buyer, Laurie Wagner . Rough Breaks: A Wyoming High Country Memoir. Univ. of Oklahoma. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9780806143750. pap. $19.95. MEMOIR
This memoir is based on the meticulous diaries Buyer kept during the five years she spent at the O Bar Y Ranch in the western Wyoming high country during the 1980s. When she moves into the “Flying A” cabin with her Vietnam-vet boyfriend and convinces the stubborn ranch owner Mick to hire her as a part-time hand, she has no idea what’s in store for her. Mick is two decades her senior, but he and Buyer develop an affection for each other even as she grows closer to his wife and two children. While she is no stranger to the isolation of living in a remote place, she finds herself ill prepared for some of her responsibilities, such as cutting and baling hay, dodging spooked moose, and feeding cattle in seven feet of snow. VERDICT We are lucky to have Buyer’s uniquely female voice added to the ranch memoir collection, as it is a predominantly male profession.
Eldon, Kathy. In the Heart of Life: A Memoir. HarperOne: HarperCollins. 2013. 384p. ISBN 9780062048622. $26.99. MEMOIR
In 1993, the author’s son Daniel was stoned to death in Somalia along with three other journalists. Her memoir explores her life as his mother leading up to and following this tragedy. She moves from London to Kenya in the 1970s with her husband and two young children, where they embrace the expat lifestyle that’s full of swinging cocktail parties, marital indiscretions, and an unexplained feeling of closely looming danger. In Nairobi, the Eldons’ home becomes a turnstile for foreign travelers and journalists from all over the world. As Daniel grows up, he takes an interest in photojournalism and adventure, inspired by the experiences of these houseguests. What follows is Eldon’s recounting of the tragic circumstances surrounding her son’s death and her journey through grief. Believing she is still in contact with him through encounters with spirit guides and psychics, she is moved to continue his work by creating a foundation to support “creative activists,” which she ultimately does along with her daughter Amy. VERDICT Although this memoir was written as a means of dealing with her devastation after the death of her son, its strength is in what comes before that: Eldon’s endeavor to find her way as a young expat mother in 1970s Nairobi.
Lindhout, Amanda & Sara Corbett. A House in the Sky: A Memoir. Scribner. 2013. 384p. ISBN 9781451645606. $27. MEMOIR
Lindhout escaped her troubled childhood by thumbing through back issues of National Geographic and dreaming about leaving her small town in Alberta, Canada, to see the world. After moving to the big city of Calgary, she discovers that she can support six months of travel with another six months of work as a cocktail waitress. And so with months of saved wages and heedless determination, she sets off to visit destinations as exotic as Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Egypt. Discovering she can more easily fund her adventures by freelancing as a journalist, she ventures into Somalia with a former lover as her only companion. Four days later, they are kidnapped by armed men in the desert. What follows is Lindhout’s account of 460 days in captivity. While being shuffled from abandoned house to abandoned house, she pretends to convert to Islam, is nearly killed in a desperate escape attempt, and suffers unspeakable cruelty. The only thing to sustain her is to visit her “house in the sky” that holds memories of her comfortable life before Somalia. VERDICT Lindhout’s recklessness in choosing her travel destinations will raise some readers’ eyebrows, but her resilience and search for compassion in a harrowing situation is admirable. Corbett’s rendering of Lindhout’s tale is nothing short of exquisite. [Ed. note: please see LJ 9/15/13 for Barbara Hoffert's review of this title]
Miller, Nancy K. Breathless: An American Girl in Paris. Seal. Nov. 2013. 248p. ISBN 9781580054881. pap. $16. MEMOIR
In 1961, Miller graduated from Barnard and moved to Paris to take classes at the Sorbonne and escape her nice Jewish girl destiny. At a time in history when girls her age were expected to marry, have children, and move to the suburbs, she dates many men and frolics around the city along with her roommate, Monique. Envisioning herself as Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 film Breathless, Miller seeks comfort in convenient relationships, hoping the next man will save her from what seems to be an inevitable return to the Upper West Side. VERDICT A real-life Dud Avocado, this memoir is a provocative account of a feminist scholar’s sexual awakening set amid the backdrop of 1960s Paris.
Oakey-Baker, Susan. Finding Jim. Rocky Mountain Bks. Oct. 2013. 376p. ISBN 9781927330708. $25. MEMOIR
The author and her husband, mountain guide Jim Haberl, had a love that could move mountains. Together they hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, raft in Nepal, and guide novice groups of mountaineers up dangerous peaks. After they marry and buy a house together in Whistler, BC, they start thinking about settling down and having a family. But when Jim is tragically killed in an avalanche while on a mountaineering trip in Alaska, Oakey-Baker is suddenly a 37-year-old widow living in a shrine to what their life was together. What follows is her journey to redemption as she revisits the places in the world that were most important to her and Jim: the Queen Charlotte Islands, where they first met; Uhuru Peak, where she can feel his presence; and St. Elias Park in Alaska, where he fell to his death. VERDICT Part Into Thin Air, part The Year of Magical Thinking, this is the story of one woman’s journey to recover from the loss of the life she had imagined for herself.