A Writer Comes to Terms With the Changing Rural West

THERE is a band of Western writers today examining where their region has come from and where it's headed.

Historians, poets, essayists, novelists, they're taking apart myths that started when the United States was born (before that, really) and that remain, in one way or another, as versions and visions of reality all over the country.

Among the best are those who have lived part of that nation-defining history on ranches and reservations and in small towns across the West: Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Patricia Nelson Limerick, James Welch, Linda Hasselstrom, and a few dozen more.

William Kittredge is one of those who writes most personally of the changes that the region and its "stories" (to use the word he prefers) have seen over the years. Kittredge, who is 60ish and now teaches writing at the University of Montana, traces his North American ancestry back through wagon-train pioneers to pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts.

But his story, in a new collection of autobiographical essays called Hole in the Sky: A Memoir (Alfred A. Knopf, 238 pp., $20) begins three generations ago when his grandfather built a ranching operation in eastern Oregon. By the time of the Great Depression, the ranch was the size of a small Eastern state with thousands of head of cattle.

The Kittredges were part of the "propertied classes" running "a skewed remnant of the feudal system." The author's father had added large-scale farming to the ranching business, using huge tractors to drain marshes and control water flow in a fragile ecosystem.

Like so much of the West, the turn of a generation had brought agribusiness on a grand scale. In this case, there were visiting movie stars and personal airplanes, boarding schools and forays into politics.

For eight years after college and an Air Force tour, Kittredge was the farming boss - until he began seeing that machinery and chemicals not only meant higher productivity and more money, but also soil gone sour and wildlife habitat lost forever.

He got out in midlife, but for reasons that had more to do with figuring out his own story - his relationship with family members, his urge toward a literary life, and his failings and perceived weaknesses.

And here the story moves painfully from the particulars of one man and one family to the universal, which makes it more than personal or even regional. It is a sad and frustrating account involving alcohol, infidelity, and wasted talents.

Kittredge moves to the edge of self-pity but, eventually, sees that for what it really is too - "an act of arrogance ... as monstrously unfair to the people we were as it is smugly complacent for me to feel now."

In the end, this is a search for intimacy and grace, the understanding that "love and not justice is the point of things," the power of selflessness over the will to dominate, and the need for generations to pass along values as well as property.

He writes: "My father, I thought, could have told me things to know, actual as a stone with a code engraved on it, a thing you could put in your pocket and carry around, cool and hard and smooth, that you could touch when you were worried. But such a thing was not in our contract."

There is nothing particularly Western about that. But you write about what you know, and Kittredge knows the rural West and tells its stories as well as anyone writing today.

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