Since her breakthrough novels, the haunting Postcards (1992) and her Pulitzer winner, The Shipping News (1993), Annie Proulx ’57 has given us characters shaped—and defeated—by some combination of place and circumstance. The country may change, but what traps her people doesn’t: an unsparing rural life bending to a changing world, landscape gone awry, people stumbling along to make something of it—and losing.
It is a given that her people aren’t gifted. Maybe stubborn and prone to taking chances, their defeat proves less their own doing than some fate of the draw. Characters in her various stories suffer similar fates: emerging from lives of hardscrabble reality, they find themselves trapped, abandoned, lost. Proulx’s steely prose brings these moments to us like body blows, shocking away possibility.
Examples are “Brokeback Mountain” (which became the exquisite film that should have won the Oscar for 2005) and “Tits-Up in a Ditch,” her spare portrayal of what war does to the people so marginalized by life that “joining up” seems an opportunity.
In Bird Cloud Proulx steers her considerable gifts away from fiction to focus on self. Bird Cloud, the name shared by her book and the weather-battered chunk of Wyoming land on which she dreams of spending her days, is part family memoir, part the perils of building your dream house, and part history—geological, Indian, and westward settlement.
Proulx combines these themes to give us an enormously readable book. Her protean abilities as a writer draw us easily from her darkish family background to her love affair with Bird Cloud; then on to her ambitious plans—and ultimate defeat—at building her year-round dream house; and finally the soaring concluding chapters about what is already there. Her remarkable powers of description make these chapters, about the life in the land, as satisfying as any nature writing can be—mercifully free of sentiment, determinedly honest in observation.
Still, we close the book knowing something is missing. Going back to her stories, we find what it is. Her fictional victims, stoic but helpless, are what win us over. Their unavoidable defeat breaks our heart. But circumstance is not what defeats Proulx’s efforts to build her dream house, as she hints early on it will not be. Admitting to being “bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short tempered, single minded,” she helps us see that it is not so much grim fate that defeats her as it is these very qualities. She presses her own ideas upon the land, rather than letting the land uncover its ideas for her. Her appreciation of the beautiful bald eagles bonding with the land notwithstanding, she clings to her own peculiar needs—foreign tiles and odd sinks and views just so. Proulx, we finally realize, is not so much trapped by circumstance as by self—her need to force an entry onto a landscape that might let her borrow from it, but cannot let her make it her own.
Of course in her own way she is describing the West, the same that breaks her heart as she watches it violated by drilling rigs and refineries and corralled rivers. She knows it is a land we must learn to live with if we are to preserve it. But somehow she can’t do it. So, in its own way, Proulx’s loss becomes our gain. She lets us share Bird Cloud even as she concludes it will not bend to host her dreams.
Willard Wyman ’56 is a former English professor and dean at Colby. His second novel, Blue Heaven, will be published this year. His first, High Country, was named Best First Novel and Best Novel of the West of 2006 by the Western Writers of America. Wyman lives in the coastal mountains of California.