I’ve always had a fascination with the western United States. It must have begun with movies like An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, legendary John Wayne action films like True Grit, and everyone’s favorite high school time traveler, Marty McFly in Back to the Future Part III.
Then, when I was nineteen, I spent a summer driving around the continental US, and when I was in states like Montana and Wyoming, the fascination became an obsession. The expansive plains, and the far off mountains and the sadness of old, abandoned buildings that once housed ranchers and ranchers’ families contributed to the overall beauty and made these places more than just shapes on a map.
In Annie Proulx’s newest collection of short stories, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3, the state of Wyoming becomes the main character throughout. She moves through generations of Wyoming’s struggling residents, who are trying to cope with changing times and the harsh, lonely environment in which they live.
The collection starts with “Family Man.” This story sets a tone of hardship and the inevitability of the movement of time for the rest of the book. Ray Forkenbrock, a former ranch hand, never an owner, is now a resident of the Mellowhorn Retirement Home. His granddaughter, his only remaining family, visits him once a week. She begins recording his childhood stories, with the intention of writing them down as a sort of family history.
Proulx’s use of time, moving backwards to Ray Forkenbrock’s childhood and then forward again, back to present time, provides an economical narrative that spans multiple generations in one story. She provides necessary information, from the day of cowboys and family ranches to the days of natural gas plants and Chevy Silverados, without getting lost in details that would be easy to become lost amongst. The twists in plot sequence are, to me, unpredictable, and are not unbelievable. But they are jaw dropping nonetheless and they create a genuine interest in moving forward through the remaining eight stories.
“Sagebrush Kid” was unexpected, but, in the end, necessary. Told like a proper horror story, a tale unfolds about the legend of a giant sagebrush plant. This particular plant has been the location where, over the course of many years, according to word of mouth and some eyewitness, multiple people have allegedly vanished into thin air, leaving nothing behind but personal effects and sometimes blood. Told using a series of instances, and only eleven pages, Proulx’s ability to get only the necessary information on the page, in a provocative, enthralling manner shines through again.
The final, and most heart-wrenching story, “Tits-Up In a Ditch,” follows a girl who is doomed from birth. Dakotah Lister is born to and then abandoned by her troubled mother, Shaina. Dakotah is left with and raised by grandparents, Verl and Bonita, who hadn’t planned on raising another girl for another eighteen years in their later lives. In this story, the reader follows Dakotah as a girl and as a young woman as she embarks on a life of struggle and self-definition. Proloux uses this story to highlight a pattern, of life and circumstances that she has seen in her neighbors and fellow Wyoming residents.
These characters are mostly sad and lonely, and they stay that way and they create more people who are just as sad and lonely. But, there’s something beautiful about all of it too. Proulx expresses that while many times, situations are grim and doomed for failure, the people and their work ethic and their place also should celebrated, and she does just that in these Wyoming stories.
About the author:
I am currently a writing student at Columbia College Chicago. My work has been accepted by www.thebrownspotonline.com and has been featured on the website for Lujo Records where I have contributed band biographies and features for some of their bands.