Modern Western ranch life isn't a subject I thought I'd be moved by—until I read this small, out-of-nowhere essay collection, Amy Hale Auker's Rightful Place.
It's an eloquent yet hard-bitten book that completely changed this city slicker's attitude toward Texas cowboy life, despite the fact that I've read and reviewed many similar literary efforts; now those other works seem slight by comparison. I didn't so much turn pages as live inside them, transported by Auker's unfussy, unflinchingly precise prose. She casts a spell of language I can't shake off.
In the very first essay, "Waking Up," Auker confesses that she wasn't cut out for anything less than working in a cow camp. "College was a groomed and manicured world where the clock ruled and my dorm room was the size of a coffin," she writes. "I missed the sky." After a short but intense struggle to find a place in the automated, suburbanized landscape of late-20th-century America, she opts to follow her father's only real life lesson: Never leave the land.
At 19, she marries a ranch cowboy, Nick, and spends the next 20 years or so cooking for cowboys at spring camps, having a couple of kids and writing columns for "Western magazines and small-town weekly newspapers."
What kind of guy is Nick? Well, if you've never met a ranch cowboy, here's an excerpt, describing the couple's first Christmas together, that sums up him—and his marriage to Auker—pretty well:
The only problem, that first year, was that when we got all of the glass balls and painted wooden ornaments hung on the tree, we realized that I had forgotten to buy a star for the top. Nick sat down with his pocketknife and built one out of a beer box and a roll of tinfoil. Though it has been refurbished with new foil from time to time, that beer-box star is still the last thing to go on our tree each year.
It's not all on-the-cheap improvisation for Auker; there's hard work, too. For instance, in the excruciatingly vivid "Facing North," she and her family assume branding and vaccination duties for 200 recently arrived Mexican steers, even as a storm from the north approaches.
The head gate slams shut on yet another steer as he attempts to leap through the keyhole for freedom. I squeeze the triggers on the airplane-shaped vaccine guns, one shot in the neck, one in the hip. ... My hands are cramped and chapped. Periodically I stop to change needles, yanking the dull one off with a pair of pliers, dropping it into the trash barrel, carefully uncapping and fitting on a new sharp one.
Gruesome as the task sounds, Auker and her clan need to eat, and after applying Nick's ChapStick by "ignoring the bits of dirt and snuff stuck to its surface," the food she prepared spills out like a poem of mercy lodged within in an epic novel of scientific doom: "The trip north is quiet after I open our lunch sack and pass out still-warm tortillas filled with roast beef and cheese and wrapped in tinfoil; green, crisp apples; crumbly squares of chocolate cake." In other words, Auker is no Luddite cattle-industry reformer criticizing the use of antibiotics. Rather, she understands the tradeoffs we as a people, as a species, often make.
At the same time, her focus and concern is on her family and the land. Indeed, the two are often synonymous, especially in her meditative descriptions of watching the Texas landscape in action. But her most compelling passages occur in isolation, as in "Harvest," after the sun has set, and her family is sleeping.
Tonight the moon is fat on the horizon. Coyote pups wrestle and nip at each other at the bottom of a maroon cut bank. Their mother lopes up out of the draw and points her nose in a song that sails out over the prairie. Later she'll bring fat quail and drop them at the half-grown pups' feet. After their supper she'll teach them a rapid staccato yip while the feathers drift away on the breeze.
This high level of powerful imagery and language mark every page of Auker's debut; indeed, Rightful Place does everything right. If you wish to understand how a woman can find happiness, forget Eat Pray Love. Auker, who now resides in Arizona, will remind you why, when you were kid, the land—or just nature in general—felt so much closer, and why you never should have left it.