Mary Clearman Blew is one of those writer’s writers whom many hear about but never actually read. It would be lovely if Jackalope Dreams broke that open, but give the fanfare over the latest Grisham, it’s difficult to imagine such luck. Blew’s prose is as hardscrabble and finely whittled as her Montana subjects: protagonist Corey Henry is fierce, she’s grumpy and, most unusual in today’s fiction, she’s older—in her late 50s.
Apart from a brief stint in art school, Corey has spent her life in Fort Maginnis, Montana, catering to her father Loren, washing his clothing, cooking his meals, working as the town schoolteacher and handing her checks over to him. Loren, in turn, is a mean cowboy bastard who expects nothing less of his daughter. Her significant artistic talent is worthless, a burr to be tugged out and discarded.
But life changes when the Doggetts move to town, bringing daughters Ariel and Rose to the one-room schoolhouse where Corey has ruled with an iron fist. Ariel, a beautiful, sullen 13-year-old, is enraged at her uprooting from cosmopolitan Santa Monica. She responds to class discipline by calling Corey a cunt. Corey slaps her.
Hailey, holed up in his McMansion with recently paroled brother Eugene and a silent, giant fellow called Albert, sues, hoping to get Corey and Loren’s land. Loren responds by blowing his brains out, leaving a mess of ranch paperwork, stashed cash, and crumbling real estate for an overwhelmed Corey to clean up.
Though Corey and the families of Fort Maginnis are puzzled by the Doggetts’ goings on—the backhoe, the rifle tower—they prefer to live and let live. But then, in the only weak part of the novel, Ariel goes missing. Strangely, Hailey and his wife, Rita, make little effort to find her. Rita, a weak woman who prefers to sleep the day away rather then confront the mounting craziness in her household, is worried about Ariel but far from frantic. She places a call to John Perrine, a local lawyer, but refuses to contact the police. An entire summer passes before Rita bestirs herself to action.
The book deftly turns stereotypes on their heads; those of us living on the nation’s edges sometimes view our fellow interior citizens as backward, even idiotic, though of course the idiots here are the Californian Doggetts. While the community despairs over today’s youth, it is the children who enlighten the adults about the evil transpiring on Doggett property. And though Corey is by no means Salma Hayek on horseback, she attracts the attentions of John Perrine, a truly good man who is, God help us, 11 years younger than Corey and handsome despite extra girth.
Blew excels at capturing present day realities against the shrinking world of western ranching, doing a wonderful job of explicating ranch life without belaboring it. Jane Smiley would do well to read Blew on horses: just enough detail, but not so much that the urbanite reader tosses her hands up.
All this in a compelling package that makes the book difficult to put down—you cannot bear not to keep reading. What happens to Hailey? Ariel? What does neighbor Annie Reisenaur know? Little Rose Doggett? And how about the Staple children, Amy and Bobbie? What do they know? (everything, it turns out) And what of giant, quiet Albert on his motorcycle?
Blew has woven these disparate elements—the death of the old West, the crazed militiamen, women both weak and strong, all-seeing children, the creeping destruction of drugs—into a tautly beautiful book that, by rights, should be shoving the trash on the bestseller lists aside. That it isn’t, and won’t, is testimony to her assertion that the best things about the old ways are indeed being lost.