Middling anthology of writing about the American West, focusing on regional identity.
Where is the West? By geographic convention, it begins at the 98th Meridian, where the rainfall shades off into scarcity and the grass gets dry. By literary convention, it’s a state of mind, a place where freedom awaits and the sky and land are big enough to engulf a puny human. Many of the contributors to this collection wrestle with one or another of these categories, though an ever-sardonic Charles Bowden puts an end to the incertitude: “So based on the evidence, the case could be made that I live in the West and therefore I am a Westerner. But this claim is bullshit.” Bowden is in good company with the likes of Charles Daniel, Denise Chávez and Jim Harrison, all of whom serve up hymns of not-uncritical praise to the region. Yet the anthology is not wholly satisfactory. One problem is that the contributors are, in the main, the usual suspects—Rick Bass, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams and the like—who have already said elsewhere what they say here. Another, related to the first, is that these voices are overwhelmingly white (and, less overwhelmingly, academic); an anthology of this sort should be the first to assert by example and not sentiment alone that the West is a place where Anglo, Native and Hispanic cultures meet. That said, there are some excellent pieces here, including a standout essay by Jim Hepworth on growing up in a broken home among Blackfoot Indian basketball whizzes in a place where “the moonless sky above us stretched from horizon to horizon as black as the Lone Ranger’s mask, but it was also a sky filled with a billion planets and stars.” Bowden is customarily grim, but customarily right about things, while Harrison growls, nicely, “If the mountains were actually ennobling I would have noticed it by now.” Other contributors include Louise Erdrich, Antonya Nelson, C.J. Box, William Kittredge and Gary Snyder.
A collection that doesn’t quite live up to its promise.