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A New Chapter in Ex-Ranch Wife's Life

Lifestyles: Judy Blunt's new book of growing up in Montana looks to have a resonance far beyond northwest plains.


MISSOULA, Mont. — Reading even a single passage from her memoir, one realizes just how far Judy Blunt has come from her years as a stifled ranch wife.

In her book "Breaking Clean," Blunt tells of writing her thoughts on freezer paper rolled into a Sears & Roebuck typewriter, until her enraged father-in-law smashed it with a sledgehammer.

Her story about life as a Montana ranch girl and as a prairie ranch wife who walked away for a fresh start arrives in stores Feb. 5, but the book began in a college writing class years ago and grew legs.

"Breaking Clean" netted Blunt a $35,000 Whiting Writer's Award in October. In 1997, it won a PEN/Jerard Fund Award for a work in progress. Now, as Alfred A. Knopf of New York prepares to release "Breaking Clean," reviewers are showering praise.

National Geographic Adventure likes Blunt for "striking matches on the scuffed soles of her feelings," and Book magazine likened her to Frank McCourt, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his Irish memoir "Angela's Ashes." Wrote Publishers Weekly, "Blunt's own story is so rich and genuine, readers will clean their plates and ask for more."

These days, Blunt, 47, teaches writing at the University of Montana, where she became a student soon after leaving Phillips County in 1986 with, as she wrote, "a new divorce and an old car, with three scared kids and some clothes piled in back." This winter and spring, there will be book tours.

"Ranch wife had always been my default career," Blunt said during an interview in her campus office. "I knew I could do it. I didn't have a lot of guidance about finding my way in the outside world."

The granddaughter of Montana homesteaders, Blunt grew up on a remote eastern Montana ranch, between the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation and the Missouri River Breaks.

She sold her parents' horse, and used the money to attend Northern Montana College for one academic quarter. Then, at 18, she wed a Vietnam veteran 12 years her senior, and moved to his family's grain and cattle ranch 15 miles from where she grew up.

Some ranch couples function as business partners, but Blunt said that as the daughter-in-law in a family ranch corporation, she had virtually no standing.

"My job basically was to take care of men, and when they came along, babies," she said. But she is quick to add that her story is not the story of every ranch wife.

"Breaking Clean" was written over the course of a decade, mostly student years for Blunt as she pursued a bachelor's degree and then a master of fine arts at Montana.

She felt torn about leaving the ranch. "It took her quite awhile to resolve that stuff for herself," said author William Kittredge, one of Blunt's professors a dozen years ago.

As a student she paid the bills with college financial aid, child-support checks and money from a job that had her sanding and varnishing wood floors for customers who included actress Andie MacDowell, part of Montana's emerging celebrity element at the time.

"Judy survived on three and four hours of sleep a night, sometimes less, and about three pots of coffee," said Clifford Cain, who owned Custom Wood Floors. "I don't know how she did what she did." He remembers watching her children join her on the stage at her graduation ceremony.

"Breaking Clean" began with an assignment in the university's creative-writing program. Blunt submitted her essay, now the book's first chapter, to professor William Bevis, who was so moved by her piece that he read it to an auditorium of students.

"I read it out loud and the class was just stunned, silent," said Bevis, who describes her writing as "unpretentious, certain and exact."

Soon afterward, Blunt the journalism student became an English major as well. Her book of poetry, "Not Quite Stone," was published in 1992.

Kittredge, who has written several books and co-edited the 1988 anthology "The Last Best Place," which brought attention to Montana writing, said it is hard to predict how "Breaking Clean" will be received by a national audience.

"Western books tend not be big successes nationally," he said. "But once in a while, one is."

Blunt's book has all the Western elements: hard winters, a one-room school, isolation, a desperately feverish child and more.

"I think this is a book that will last, and last and last," Kittredge said. "Decades from now, it will still be in print."

Blunt is cautious about forecasting what might lie ahead

"I don't really have a full set of options yet," she said. "I don't know how far this book will fly me."

She has looked at opportunities in metro areas, places like Miami and Pittsburgh, but is mindful that her writing ethic is grounded in the West. She knows there are good things about "staying where your stories are heard."

"I can't manufacture excitement about learning to live in a large city," she said.

Sometimes she wonders if moving to Missoula was her "last brave thing," she said.

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