In her first essay collection, Blew (a story collection, Runaway, 1990--not reviewed) joins the top echelon with 11 virtuoso pieces on life and death on the Montana Plains. Blew writes of growing up on a hard-scrabble ranch; her father had her on horseback working cattle at age seven. His dream was that his two girls would become his partners in the ranch, but Blew's mother laid down the law that they must go to school. After Blew went to college and didn't return, her father wouldn't speak to her for years. One day, he told his wife he was going to the mine for a load of coal and drove off in his pickup to die. He was found, heart stopped, head cradled in arm, on a ridge overlooking a bend in the Powder River. Elsewhere, Blew tells of her maiden aunt Imogene, who began teaching in one-room schoolhouses in 1927. The lone women teachers were expected to carry their own coal, start the schoolhouse stove in 30-degrees-below-zero winters and live in a one-room teacherage behind the school with only a kerosene lamp and a bucket of spring water. In their isolated posts, they were vulnerable to rape. When ``the boys'' came for her, she ran them off with a rifle. Blew also speaks of the MÇtis- -buffalo-chasing descendants of French fur traders and Cree women; Hutterites--a Mennonite-like sect called ``fur-bearing Christians'' because of their beards; Japanese railroad workers--so scorned that, in a history for the 1988 centennial celebration of statehood, the 1888 census of donkeys was listed but any reference to the substantial 1888 population of Japanese omitted. Surrounding all are the vast, lonely plains: sagebrush and mirages and blue buttes. When Blew's great-aunt was born, cowboys rode for miles to see her, so starved were they for the sight of a baby. Subtle prose that transports to a magical place, dissolving the line between memory and the present. A superbly realized vision.