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Saturday, 24 December 2016

A Western Classic: Linda Hasselstrom's Windbreak

In the Introduction to this wonderful book, the author wastes no time in preparing her readers for the rigours of the ranch life they are about to experience (and I use that word, ‘experience’, deliberately). She tells us about a neighbour who falls sixty feet from the top of a silo but survives, despite suffering many injuries – skeletal and internal. He remarks, as he lies recovering, ‘If I’d known how bad I was hurt, I’d have died.’ As a friend of mine once remarked, a propos some random example of the offhand humanity you encounter daily out there beyond the Hundredth Meridian, ‘Cowboys. I tell ya.’

Windbreak – which was published thirty years ago and has been on my ‘to read’ list for about fifteen - is a day-by-day account of one year in the author’s life as a writer, rancher and activist in South Dakota in the mid-1980s. The book takes you beyond the meat to the very gristle of existence out there in the wind-blasted Plains. It covers you in cow-shit, slobber and blood, regardless of whether you’re freezing or frying (and you’re generally one or the other), and thrusts your nose smack bang into the brute realities of calving, round-up and fencing under the naked sky, exposed to everything the Great Plains weather machine can brew up for you.

I don’t know whether Linda Hasselstrom chose this particular year for its long, bitter winter and towering snow-drifts and cruel summer heatwave, but I’d like to think that not every year is quite this tough, not always this dramatic. Although to speak of the dramatic - that is, the range fires, the hailstorms, the floods, the passing stranger who asks to use the phone and turns out to be a felon on the run – is to overlook the sheer tedium of those airless days, slow as cold molasses, when the temperature sticks resolutely in the low 100s, or the long droughts which persuade even the mosquitoes to look for a  change of scene, or the months of trudging through snow drifts alternately ice-crusted or rotting in a brief thaw - only to find that that missing cow is now a pile of bones gnawed clean by the neighbourhood coyotes.

This book is an education. If you wanted to write a novel set in cattle country this would be a good place to start. The place. The landscape is a living entity. Its fauna become characters, its flora a rich back-drop. Its moods engender fear, delight, awe and an occasional moment of poetic abstraction.

It is also deeply personal. Through the year the author grabs any reflective moment – driving to Rapid City for supplies, riding her horse across the range in pursuit of some errant calf, mowing a frazzled alfalfa crop and fretting over the cost of bought-in hay – to sketch in a few more details about her health, her two marriages, the ranch, and of course its management.

Not that there are many idle moments. No sooner is calving over than there are fruits to harvest and freezers to fill – with pies and chutneys and apple butter; or a steer to butcher and consign to the freezer; or a surprise crop of buffalo berries discovered in some quiet draw that demands an afternoon of scratched hands under a blistering sun, an evening of pie-making – with just the briefest of pauses to savour the aroma. And even in the quietest times there are under-currents, murmuring away like some hidden water-source: her husband’s cancer; the erosion of land values; the ageing ranch population; the constant passage of trains across the range there, every one a threat to the tinder-dry grasses.

This particular year the snows came in October and didn’t really clear until May. The business of staying dry (dream on) and warm (you might get lucky) dominates page after page. The daily weather reports with temperatures dipping below zero catch your attention. Then, after seven weeks of more or less continuous cold, comes Winter. -30 at night, -10 at noon – and still all those cattle to find, corral and feed.

I was both captivated and exhausted by this book. I felt I was very much there, watching the weather, worrying about potential disasters, eager to find out more about the practicalities of this tough breed of people. I knew I was ‘experiencing it’ when we all got away to a black powder camp for a short break in the cool of the mountains and I had a palpable sense of the tension easing its grip on my body. For a brief moment we were away from the day-to-day worries, cooking over camp-fires, mingling with mountain men and their gals – although even here a fire broke out and it was all hands on deck. No peace for the wicked.

I could talk at great length about what I read. I loved it. I felt bereft when it was over. However, this is a review, not a grad school essay. I have selected but half a dozen of fifteen key moments I tagged as I galloped through twelve gruelling months in 48 hours. Sometimes, they tell you, less is more.

As I said, Windbreak has been around for a time; but it still feels significant. Not a great deal will have changed in the thirty years since it came out. The land, the weather, the beasts, and the temper of those who engage with them -  the important things - will be pretty much as they always were. Inasmuch as those elemental factors are timeless, so is the book – and I’d rate it a classic.

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