A grim tale purporting to explain the pull of a place (the ranchland of South Dakota) that succeeds mainly in making those lucky readers who have never lived in that high dry country feel luckier still.
Daum grew up in south-central South Dakota, where she continues to raise horses for a half of each year on a dwindled portion of the family farm (her stake is now 130 acres, down from the 13,000 her father once owned). This is not a landscape for the weak or the fearful, for it is the home of monstrous hailstorms, seven-year droughts, and the sudden death of crops, animals, and children. “You have to be ready to die alone when you live eighty miles from the nearest hospital. There’s no telling when.” Daum experiences cruelty from the weather and the barbed wire and the predations of the ranch hands, and it seems to go on forever, like the grassland. But what she chooses to remember is the still and the quiet and the openness of the far horizon. Occasionally this sense of place is drawn out into the light in highly descriptive episodes—riding fences, hanging over the edge of a rise and looking an eagle in the eye, attending to foaling and calving—lightly buffed with emotion, when Daum’s attraction to the land is understandable and her writing possesses power and becomes memorable. And she sometimes turns a lovely image (“The sky was a whirlpool of cranes”)—although just as often she churns out a hackneyed one (“I remember thinking that if the stars had voices they might sing like this”). What becomes grating, though, is her high, lonesome, and spare voice, which in its mimicry of place feels posed: “I learned about silence from the land” or “at night I dream of coyotes.”
A stifling and heartless tale: Daum isn’t sorry to see the demise of her childhood way of life, but she cannot adequately make clear the reasons for her continued attachment to the site of all that misery.