Judy Blunt grew up with stories. In her Hi-line community near Malta in eastern Montana, she says “a good story rose to the surface of conversation like heavy cream, a thing to be savored and served artfully. Stored in dry wit, wrapped in dark humor, tied together with strings of anecdotes, these stories told the chronology of a family, the history of a piece of land, the hardships of a certain year or span of years, a series of events that led without pause to the present.” These words, better than any I could arrange, encapsulate the basis and the body of Blunt’s finely wrought and clearheaded appraisal of her upbringing in, and eventual retreat from, the community of her birth.
Blunt weaves a vision of a child’s ominous wonder growing up in the midst of wide and dangerous territory. Grasslands so vast the native antelope use distance more than seclusion to hide. Through her child’s eyes, we witness legendary times in the humblest of circumstances, a land so expansive and extreme of temperament it seems to fight back against her family’s habitation there. “Stout diamond willow sticks leaned against every gatepost,” in readiness against rattlesnakes. “Wind” she tells us, “was a fact of life…for days on end, a relentless pushing at your back, a constant moan we listened around and shouted over without really hearing.” Snow and wind together comprised “variations on a theme:” killing blizzards, ground dusters or mid-winter and spring Chinooks. Among these elements, we witness little Judy and her siblings bearing down on a consistently repeated “sameness” of chores, milking and tending the cows, clearing water tanks of ice, gathering eggs, feeding the chickens, and twice as much more. The chore list shames me.
Blunt’s narrative recalls a way of life fast disappearing even as she grew up in it. The relatively short span of years between her grandparents’ and her own generation saw the tractor replace the team and plow. The halting, often haphazard, development of rural electrification occurred in her childhood. By the time she graduated high school, small family operations were fast losing ground, bought up and incorporated into larger ranches. To her great sorrow, amidst these changes, spanning more than 30 years, one marriage and the birth of three children, Judy Blunt would find no true purchase to develop her own heart’s desires. Indeed, the slowest of changes would come in the hearts of her family and neighbors. Their rigid values in the face of a hostile environment would hardly tolerate the presence of women among working men, much less grant Blunt a modest authority, even over the hired help. Without the good graces of its people, she could never find her place on the land.
It all could have ended in her bitter resolve to leave home, which was almost all she knew of the world. It did not. Over the years, Blunt seems to have found promise in the things she left behind, her stories and the wisdom they confer to the present, standing in as her true inheritance. She says of her people: “we talked in facts—work and weather…but stories were how we spoke.” Some facts were so tragic “only time softened [them] into stories.” Time and distance, it seems, have touched her losses with a magical beneficence, transforming her experience into stories she can now tell far from the close-knit circle she was raised in.
Breaking Clean reads as though we have been granted a place at Blunt’s kitchen table. Over a cup of coffee, she tells a lifetime as she has known it. Anecdotes, studded with earthy aphorisms that creak like an old gate swinging wide, and carry the hard-won wisdom of generations. There is no cynicism toward us here. We are not regarded as outsiders in Blunt’s new home. She tells her stories willingly, entrusts us with confidences one might relate to a newfound kindred spirit. She shares her past with candor and, if need be, just enough humor to dispel the pall of despondency.
Blunt’s writing builds solidly on the foundations of able progenitors: Willa Cather’s heroic characterizations and her admiration of hard work and common sense; Wallace Stegner’s lovely meditations on place and history from his childhood sketches in Saskatchewan. Her themes are broad as the land and lifetime that engendered them. She is not brooding in the suffering she relates. The writing is clean and free of self-indulgence. Her admiration for her parents is beneath the writing, beginning to end.
Again, her words aptly sum up the closing to her story thus far: “I am fortunate to still have my family on the land where I grew up. I can drink coffee in the kitchen where I learned to bake bread, bathe in the same shallow cast iron tub of sulfur and salts, visit the lopsided outbuildings where I once fed chickens, scouted new litters of kittens and roped milk pen calves. I can ride through a herd of cattle descended from cattle my grandfather knew. When I’m done, I get in my car and drive back to Missoula, secure in my sense that the landscape of my childhood remains intact, in place. For fifty years my parents have held the line, grubbing a marginal existence from marginal land, preserving the heart of ranching tradition even as the lights of the community winked out around them. They’ve paid dearly for my privilege.”