When Cowgirls Get Down Off Their Horses and Write

Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West

Edited by Nancy Curtis, Linda Hasselstrom and Gaydell Collier Houghton Mifflin 388 pp., $25

The mythic American "cowboy" - a rugged, suntanned man with hat, boots, and swagger - seems more real than the real thing. Lest this happen to the American "cowgirl," three ranch-women in Wyoming have put together an anthology of farm women's stories to set the record straight.

"Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West" is a treasure of voices that takes us into the hearts, barns, and kitchens of more than 200 women in six Western states. The women have written bits of their own life histories, simply and honestly. Published to much acclaim last June (and already in its third hardcover printing), the book is available this month in paperback.

The voices are many and marvelous. We hear from women who grew up third-generation farmers, and others who moved to ranches from New York or California "to touch the earth, and stand in the wind." Some women choose to leave the farm - after losing a husband or after being ruined several years running by bad weather. Others cling to the land until they lose everything they own, silently sobbing as they watch the bank foreclose.

Several women contribute bits of another woman's past. In an excellent, touching essay, Lori Hale describes moving into a house vacated by Nancy, a woman who had lived all her 90 years there. The writer pieces together Nancy's life from the notes she finds stashed all over the house, describing everything from her first Ford Model A to what she stored in the root cellar. When the writer decides to rip up the linoleum, she finds newspapers insulating walls and "shellacked by time to the floor ... I started in one corner of a room and read about the beginning of WWI, reading all the way around the room to WWII."

The farm chore most frequently written about is delivering calves. Contributor Audrey Keith describes how in the winter of 1972, after doubling their beef herd, her husband decides that since she's up late reading anyway, she "could just as well do something more useful than waking him to check the cows." At midnight and 2 a.m. every night she checks the cows, "stumbling around in the icy barnyard with wind and snow blowing down my neck." Making money in this business is tough; every cent counts, and every birth matters. Searching in the frigid blackness, she thinks of "the immaculate women complaining about beef prices on television" and wishes they could be there with her.

Another writer is struck by the paradox of city folk who find raising beef cattle "barbaric," while at the same time they "can step over a homeless person without giving her another thought."

The editors, Linda Hasselstrom, Gaydell Collier, and Nancy Curtis, work full-time on ranches, and write and publish, too. It took them five years to read and edit the 12-foot stack of submissions from more than 500 women. Their aim was to change the old stereotype of Western women as "slim blondes in tight jeans on prancing palominos." This heartfelt collection hits the mark.

* Elizabeth A. Brown grew up as a sixth generation member on her family's dairy farm in Michigan. She lives in North Carolina.

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