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Sisters of a kind

Crazy Woman Creek Women Rewrite the American West Edited by Linda M. Hasselstrom, Gaydell Collier and Nancy Curtis Mariner Books: 304 pp., $14 paper

August 22, 2004|Carolyn See | Carolyn See is the author of numerous books, including "Making a Literary Life," "Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America" and "The Handyman: A Novel."

Here, in populist paperback, is a very different book about the West. More than 150 women write about "community" as they perceive it in "Crazy Woman Creek."

Editors Linda M. Hasselstrom, Gaydell Collier and Nancy Curtis have done this twice before. In the 1998 collection "Leaning Into the Wind," they gathered authors who wrote about "their work, their dogs, their husbands, their work, their houses and goats, their children, work, the weather that complicated their lives, and work." "Woven on the Wind" in 2002 addressed the topic of female friendships. The intent of all three books was to construct a broad narrative of many unassuming threads. They are meant to be like literary quilts or, perhaps more distressing, rag rugs -- scraps and snippets of this and that, braided together to miraculously cohere into a pleasing whole far greater than its parts.

The purpose, the editors say, is to show the truer side of the West, something more than the stereotyped skinny cowgirl, the bawdy house madam and so on, to show us the authentic, the real, in the disarming shape of ordinary life. Thus these essays, which run a few hundred to a thousand words apiece -- and poems.

Here is some of what is present in this collection: brush fires; houses on fire; lightning strikes; floods; blizzards; achingly long distances; the lack of electricity or running water; developers; ranches; and farms broken up, going bust, sold off. There are white women, some Native Americans, death, sickness and more death, women's groups, reading groups, Bible reading groups, crone circles, healing circles. Random men, teasing or churlish; a smattering of rapists; a lot of unemployment; loneliness; long lists of homemade food; a valorization of crowds as in, when somebody dies, the whole neighborhood from miles around coming by with hams, pies, casseroles. ("Elk Steak with Tomatoes and Peppers ... Rae Ellen's Cabbage Salad

Here is some of what is absent: wit (these are generally serious, earnest pieces), self-doubt, irony, cities. (Salt Lake City makes a couple of cameo appearances, San Francisco has a walk-on, Los Angeles is missing entirely, San Diego gets a tentative wave.) Also missing: the rich. What about those owners of great ranches in Montana? Don't they have wives or girlfriends who might have been asked to write? What about that former oilman's wife with a ranch in Crawford, Texas? What about the women in Fort Worth, Dallas or Tulsa whose idea of "community" might include fundraisers for the opera or the ballet, events in which covered-dish dinners don't figure at all? And except for one haunting description of a shack on the edge of a cemetery in godforsaken nowhere, there's not a poor person to be found, although most of the women write about knitting, tatting and stitching for the poor -- so they must be around someplace. Where are the bad ladies -- can't they take pen to paper? What about the communities of women hanging out in bars, like the line-dancing lesbians with neon lights flashing on their behinds I have seen in Victorville bars, or the dealers at Las Vegas gambling tables? And what about the hookers in Elko, Nev., who can't work anymore but find former clients coming by to say hi and leave a twenty or a fifty on their tables just for old times' sake? Don't those women ever get together for coffee?

Still, there's some pretty spooky stuff. A woman in Missouri is denounced as a witch by an elementary school principal because she reads books and raises frogs. She retaliates by writing a letter to a local newspaper and putting a caldron on her front lawn and filling it with petunias: "I rested an old broom against the kettle's rim and, beside it, I propped a ceramic frog. If only I could train our black cat to patrol that spot."

A woman in Texas has a foreign husband who uses horses to plow the land. She breast-feeds her baby and, amid dark accusations of dabbling in the occult, she almost loses her baby to foster care because of hysterical bureaucrats.

In one wretched parking structure in a wretched town, in wretched weather, wives of terminally ill men in the hospital next door eat cheese and crackers in separate cars -- all alone, the very opposite of community.

Speaking of community, writing on this topic was probably not a terribly good idea. The very word has pious, political overtones. You can't say, for instance, "I joined a community of pool players." You can, on the other hand, talk about forming a crone circle. Or a church group. Or Gamblers Anonymous. So the topic governs the tone here. The very word appears five times on one page, six times in 1 1/2 other pages.

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