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Write 'em, Cowgirl : Traditionally, American writers have cast the West as adventureland for boys, a proving ground for macho glory. But now, a new breed of women writers is celebrating a compassionate frontier and telling stories about spirituality, families and ecology in a distinctive voice.

July 07, 1993|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blood-and-guts just wasn't her bag.

As a little girl of 8, Pam Houston went to the movies one day in Bethlehem, Pa., and began sobbing uncontrollably when farmers brutally killed a family of otters. The usher had to walk her out, and when she got home, Houston did what came naturally: She sat down in her room and rewrote the ending.

"I changed the story because I didn't want blood and I didn't want anyone to die," she recalls. "I wanted a more peaceful ending. I took a whole new approach."

Nearly 23 years later, Houston is still putting her own spin on things, but now she's rewriting one of America's most cherished myths: the cowboy and the Western frontier. Along with a handful of other women authors, she's serving up a bold new take on an old story, a more humane view of the West that would make John Wayne roll over in his grave.

Forget the barroom brawls of yesteryear. Houston and her colleagues--including Barbara Kingsolver, Gretel Ehrlich and Terry Tempest Williams--are blazing literary trails that few men have explored. They're celebrating a compassionate frontier and telling stories about spirituality, families and ecology in a voice all their own.

Some explore the New West with probing views of male-female relationships, while others delve into mythology and magic. Yet a common theme runs through their works: Rather than taming or subduing the land, they say, it's time for Westerners to coexist with the great outdoors and live peacefully with one another. It's time, as one puts it, to kill the cowboy.

"The traditional view of the West is dominantly male, so women writers are free to be more creative," says Patricia Nelson Limerick, a leading Western historian at the University of Colorado.

"You can't buy into the cowboy myth if you're a woman because you don't have the right anatomy," she says. "But in the long run, the boys are trapped in this tough-guy role."

To be sure, not all male writers present a cliched version of the frontier. John Nichols, William Kittredge and the late Wallace Stegner have all examined deeper truths, and their works reflect the same concerns as the new women's literature. Yet they've been the exception.

For the most part, American writers have cast the region as adventureland for boys, a proving ground for macho glory. Authors like Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour and others have burned this image into the national subconscious, like the sizzling brand on a fatted calf.

But now it's time to circle the wagons. Here come the women.

In her acclaimed collection of short stories, "Cowboys Are My Weakness," Houston knocks the Marlboro Man flat on his can. With lusty, mocking humor, she rounds up a corral full of modern cowboys who are fumblingly insecure and emotionally inarticulate. The tales are told by a woman who has come West in search of a real man, only to fall for one tight-lipped loser after another. She grows weary, staggering from one down sleeping bag to the next.

"I've always had a thing about cowboys," the woman says, "maybe because I was born in New Jersey. But a real cowboy is hard to find these days, even in the West." When she meets one, he tells her: "I'd love to give you a great big kiss. But I've got a mouthful of chew."

Other writers are hunting even bigger game.

In her latest novel, "Pigs in Heaven," Kingsolver tells the story of an Arizona woman who is raising an adopted Cherokee daughter and who flees with her child when the tribe attempts to reclaim the girl. As she does in previous books, the author grapples with themes of multiculturalism, ecological destruction and a search for community.

Meanwhile, Alison Baker explores the zany nature of cowboy psychology in stories like "How I Came West and Why I Stayed." Toni Volk has written "Montana Women," a vivid novel about two sisters in the 1940s. And Sharman Apt Russell, a New Mexico author, has published "Kill the Cowboy," a provocative collection of ecology-oriented essays.

Western-themed books also have been written by Williams ("Refuge"), Judith Freeman ("The Chinchilla Farm"), Ehrlich ("The Solace of Open Spaces"), Leslie Marmon Silko ("The Almanac of the Dead") and Deirdre McNamer ("Rima in the Weeds"). More are on the way, prompting some experts to speculate that a new literary genre may be emerging.

In another sense, however, these books are nothing new. Recent Western scholarship has unearthed a treasure-trove of journals and diaries kept by women during America's tumultuous frontier years. Although they've never received the same attention as books by men, these documents offer a rich and revealing perspective on the true role that women played.

"We have this misleading picture that the good little woman wore a sunbonnet and stood quietly by her men while the West was won," says Baker, who lives in Oregon. "But if you read these diaries, you learn how hard the West was on women. If the man was clearing the woods, the woman was often right by his side. If he got killed, she carried on alone."

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