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Friday, February 27, 2015

Mary Clearman Blew

At a glance
All But The Waltz
by Mary Clearman Blew

University of Oklahoma Press
223 pages, $$12.95

Memory, as we all know, plays tricks on us. Think of how huge your back yard seemed to you as a child. How is it that the same yard ends up being so much smaller when you see it an adult?

It's no exercise in psycho-babble to say that we remember things in ways that tend to fulfill some sort of emotional need. As the poet Anne Sexton once wrote, "It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was."

Mary Clearman Blew addresses the nature of memory all through her book "All But the Waltz: A Memoir of Five Generations in the Life of a Montana Family" (University of Oklahoma Press, 223 pages, $12.95 paper), which is the June selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

"My memories seems to me as treacherous as the river," she wrote. "How can I trust memory, which slips and wobbles and grinds its erratic furrows like a bald-tired truck fighting for traction on a wet gumbo road?"

How, indeed.

Blew, who is a professor of English at the University of Idaho, has forged a literary career out of looking at and defining her life as a native daughter of the West. Born in 1939, she is the great-granddaughter of Montana homesteaders, and her various books are explorations of the life she's led and the place from which she sprang.

Her 1999 book "Bone Deep in Landscape: Writing, Reading, and Place" (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 208 pages, $14.95 paper) is a personal reflection on what turned her to what some would call autobiographical fiction. For Blew, 1987 was the turning point - she calls it "a divide" - not only in her career as a writer but in her overall life as well.

"My father had died, and my husband was suffering from a mental breakdown along with the progressive lung disease that eventually killed him," she wrote. "I was estranged from my older children. Then I lost my job. It was the job that mattered the most: I had a small child to support."

That was the year that Blew, who had emerged from ranch life to earn a Ph.D. in 1969 at the University of Missouri, started teaching at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston. And it was the year that she began to question her previous attempts at writing fiction (her book "Lambing Out and Other Stories" had been published by the Univ. of Oklahoma Press in 1977).

"I felt a hollowness that writing fiction seemed to do nothing to fill," Blew wrote in "Bone Deep in Landscape." "And so I started all over again, writing essays to retrieve the past - in my case, the Montana homestead frontier with its harsh ideals for men and women, its tests and its limitations."

The result was "All But the Waltz."

The book's 11 essays portray the struggle that Blew has endured to become the woman she is now. Caught between her parents, she couldn't be the daughter either wanted. And her final act of what her father saw as betrayal was her refusal to return home following college to help him run the family ranch.

Her father, Blew wrote, tried to keep her "tied to a tradition I saw as illusory. He had given everything he had for me; all I wanted was the be free of the cowboy."

That sense of tradition was so strongly ingrained in her father that, at age 70, he ended up driving away from his home and dying of exposure, alone, on a remote hillside hundreds of miles in the distance.

"So strong did he believe in a mythic Montana of the past, of inarticulate strength and honor and courage irrevocably lost, that I cannot escape the conviction that a conscious choice shaped the way he died," Blew wrote.

Since the publication of "All But the Waltz," Blew has written and/or edited such books as "Balsamroot: A Memoir" (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 224 pages, $14.95 paper), "Circle of Women: An Anthology of Contemporary Women Writers" (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 414 pages, $17.95 paper: edited with Kim Barnes) and in 2001 "Written on Water: Essays on Idaho Rivers" (University of Idaho Press, 229 pages, $14.95 paper).

She also moved from Lewis-Clark to the University of Idaho, where she works with such notable literary voices as poet Robert Wrigley ("Reign of Snakes"), memoirist/novelist Kim Barnes ("Finding Caruso") and Joy Passanante ("My Mother's Lovers").

But in everything she does, the question remains: What is memory and what is meaning?

For Blew, a clue to the answer is a recollection that dates back to when she was just 3 years old. As she relates in "All But the Waltz," she remembers standing on the banks of the Judith River in north central Montana. She had a clear view of an island in the middle of the storm-swollen river on which a litter of piglets struggled to stay near their mother.

"Watching spellbound from the cab of the truck, I can feel their small terrified rumps burrowing against her sides, drawing warmth from her center even as more dirt crumbles under their hooves," she wrote.

Years later, Blew was surprised when her father told her that she was mistaken: What she remembered so vividly, he said, never happened. Yet after pondering the possibility of this, Blew concluded that it didn't matter. For her, what might really have happened was less important than the memory that has so helped shape the woman she's become.

"Whether or not I dreamed her," Blew wrote, "the sow in the river is my story."

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