West by NorthWest

on

671859Jump-Off Creek by Molly Gloss

Houghton Mifflin, 1989

*Hardback (186 pages)

I met Molly Gloss when I took a class from the incomparable J.C. Davies, a visiting professor from England. The class was Contemporary NorthWest Literature, and the books of Ms. Gloss were Wild Life and The Hearts of Horses; she was the only author for whom we were assigned to read two books. Molly Gloss agreed to come and talk to the class. She was wonderful, to say the least.

Jump-Off Creek was highly recommended, as were all her works. Gloss grew up reading Westerns and this is her own contribution to the genre; though I am fairly certain she doesn’t write for genre: and if more would realize this, she would have been released from the North West long ago.

I do not read many Westerns. I just don’t. I probably read more Westerns than spy-espionage, though. I was a bit anxious, but my husband said, “but you know the author, right? You like her writing.” I do. I liked Wild Life quite a bit, and The Hearts of Horses. Both are historical fiction, set in the North’s West, and I got through them and liked them. I like the women and men and animals and landscapes that populate her stories. She writes for the story and not the genre; though she should be seen as a regional heroine. She makes the NorthWest’s West habitable.

I grew up with the West that is Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, some Colorado and NM and Nevada, some Louisiana and Arkansas and Missouri. I grew up with the West out of books, films, and recent family history. It was educational (and at times frustrating) listening to the stories of the West, the West of the North-Westerner. Some classmates who were well-educated in their regional/state histories dismissed what I knew to be fact as Myth—to only be found in fictional retellings. I suppose I am more comfortable with the idea that there are as many Wests as there are Easts. And for all their differences, there are many similarities. I find the similarities in Gloss’ Jump-Off Creek—less in Hearts of Horses (a true NW West).

Landscape places a big character role in the Western.  The Jump-Off Creek is afforded an existence, a personality, and a history (as found in chap 36). There is the relationship to the land, the reliance and the competitiveness. There is the carving out of a life in, around, and sometimes against the landscape. Gloss, here, writes some characters who carve determinedly, but not with a language of domination, rather more like wriggling a growing child onto the two-seater couch between two parents, ready to settle in for an evening.  Lydia Sanderson (our protagonist), is no child, but is determined to have a place to call her own, where she knows she belongs. She purchases a homestead, the previous owner long gone.

Those humans a part of nature, resembling the landscape in ways, are as much a victim as the animals. The Bear caught in the trap, who would have otherwise moved on and not needing to harass his human neighbors (86), or harm them; Blue and Tim who were not looking for any real trouble. The birds and foxes and the wild  are caught up with poisoning humans as are the more domesticated kin, the dogs and human children.

Now, when I mention similarities in tales of the West, I am not suggesting the author is willing to play along with the predominating myths. However, I would suggest that she moves to subvert a few. She does not make overt moves, and she does not have to. It is simultaneous that she also handles the woman going West differently.

Those moving West are not toughened by the experience as if they were so tender in their beginnings (their pasts). Lydia Sanderson learns Pitilessness in the East, not in the West. “She was tender, but pitiless, having never gained pity and so never learning it” (96). It is also noted that loneliness is not necessary to seek out in the wilds and away, as loneliness can be felt in a crowded room, as a character Doris points out. The desire is not be alone necessarily, but to live by one’s own purpose and determination. Lydia, an only child, grew up doing all the work, even that of a man’s after her father had taken ill. If anything, the move West softens her. She begins to feel, against her will or her convenience. She tells people things about herself she never anticipated telling, let alone at the time it was shared. There are flowers that bloom in the harshest of climes and season, as Lydia’s mother reminds us in sending her seeds in the post. I am not certain this remarks upon Lydia’s femininity so much as beauty and life can be found.

Lydia is not trying to be a “man” (the borrowed gloves of her late husband never fitting; ever wearing a dress, binding up her skirt when necessary and letting it down to lay straight when it wasn’t), or even a “woman” (accepting available marriage offers), just Lydia Sanderson and the expectations she’s lined out for herself, as her having a self. “Her mother hadn’t ever liked to have her list them like that, all the things needing doing ranked from worst to least, first to last. You’ll make the heart go right out of you. But Lydia always had liked to see the whole shape to her work” (64). Writing of lists suggests a need to account for both the tasks and the accomplishments. Often pragmatic, this Lydia is not without dreams, or even her own ideas of West. A romanticism has never been available to this character before, and why should it be now.

Blue Odell, the ranching partner of Tim Whiteaker, is an Indian, of a Salish grand-parentage.  But ‘Blue’ is a nickname. He is a skilled cowboy, but it is Tim who is the tracker. And he is not so stoic or aloof, as he has an oft-remarked slow-smile and a social mien. He is the victim of bigotry and hatred and the loss of a culture, however. He is no ghost in the novel, nor an romantic vision, but a fully realized character. By the story’s end, there are echoes of Blue’s character with Lydia’s. In a sense, there is the tying in echo of Tim’s character (a quintessential cowboy of Gloss’ making). In changing times, adaptation is necessary, and the human both malleable and ready for the task. Some changes are a cause to mourn, others function as a place holder for hope.

Jump-Off Creek is a familiar tale of any West with a few familiar characters, all wearing different clothes (real vs myth), and some faring better than others. A Western in that it is a story about humans and nature, the landscape and survival of the both.

*thumbnail is cover of a softback edition.

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