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CLAIMING GROUND by Laura Bell Kirkus Star


A Memoir

by Laura Bell

Pub Date: March 19th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-27288-1
Publisher: Knopf

An elegant, deep-running chronicle of Bell’s 30 years living in the mountain West.

It begins as an encomium of place—the Lewis Ranch in northwestern Wyoming, up in the Bighorn Mountains, where the author took a job herding sheep, far indeed from her native Kentucky. She was fresh out of college, clueless but lucky to stumble into these parts, and she found herself a young woman among old male sheepherders—“tender alcoholics, muttering derelicts, societal rejects, and I had found a certain delicious comfort in their company.” When she could get it, that is, for the job was full of silence and space, tending to a knot of a thousand sheep, “a luminous, drifting mass that spills in rivulets through gulleys and rises up hillsides, conforming intricately to the imperfect shape of earth.” If the “bare-bones immensity of Wyoming can make you feel like a sacrifice left on a slab for the gods to pick clean,” all the better when it revealed its beauties, which Bell tenders with restrained grace. A few years later she was herding cattle and falling in love and marrying the wrong man, though her love of land and kin, particularly her parents and stepdaughters—drawn in intricate, emotionally charged portraits—helps get her through. She closes with a crushing death in the family, recounted with scalding vulnerability and sadness: “When I think the ash of every sorrow has burned cold, I’m mistaken.” The episode speaks volumes about fragility, impermanence and transformation. Slowly she made her way back to solid ground, in the same landscape she started with, and it can only be hoped that the next 30 years find her in the same state of raptness, but with an earned measure of serenity.

A work of descriptive virtuosity and a hard, honest pull through rough emotional terrain—an exemplary memoir.