Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review - Memoirs - Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx

American author Annie Proulx is best known for her 1993 novel, The Shipping News, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and her 1997 short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” about forbidden cowboy love, which was made into a critically acclaimed movie. Her latest book, a work of non-fiction titled Bird Cloud is subtitled A Memoir, though once the reader really gets into it, he or she wonders if “memoir” is the right word to use.

Most readers associate a memoir with deep personal revelations about the author. In Bird Cloud, Proulx, always rather secretive and reclusive, doesn’t reveal much about herself and her family. When she writes of books, they are the books of others, not her own. Her three marriages, all of which ended in divorce, and her four children (three sons and one daughter) are mentioned only in passing. In fact, Bird Cloud, named for the house Proulx had built from 2004 to 2007 on 640 acres of rough land along Wyoming’s North Platte River, is about almost everything but Annie Proulx.

The book encompasses archaeology, topography, meteorology, genealogy, ethnography, botany, zoology, and perhaps most of all, the history of Wyoming, itself. There’s bound to be something in it for everyone, just as there are bound to be parts of it that some readers won’t be interested in at all.

Proulx does give us bits and pieces of personal information. The beginning of the book deals with her French Canadian father, who, in his quest to better himself, moved around frequently. By the time Proulx was fifteen, she has lived in twenty different houses, including a log cabin and what had once been a gas station. “We Franco-Americans are a ‘rootless people,’” Proulx writes, “who really have no national identity, who really belong nowhere in the United States.” “Bird Cloud,” it seems, was meant to encompass everything Proulx had loved about some of her former homes as well as excluding everything she disliked.

Proulx also tantalizes us with the revelation of finding, with her cousin, a stack of old letters written between her mother and her aunt, both of whom suffered from a rare, progressive lung disease.

Two sick sisters. The sense of the hopelessly brave front, the running jokes, the closest sisterly bond, a hatred for stupid and condescending doctors — of all the things two people suffering the same illness can say to each other that no one else could understand — overwhelmed us. I can now barely open the box that holds those letters because all the disappointed dreams of these two hungry-for-love women fly in my face.

The reader desperately wants to know more. Sadly, Proulx denies us that knowledge.

Most of the book revolves around Proulx’s efforts to build “Bird Cloud,” efforts that trigger discourses on the history of Wyoming, the native flora and fauna, the topography of the land, etc., the loveliest of which is a paean to the eagles and other birds that nest in the trees and cliffs immediately surrounding her home.

At the time of the building “Bird Cloud,” Proulx was no stranger to Wyoming. She lived in Centennial in 1995, in a house that, she says, was all wrong for her. The kitchen was too small, the windows were not situated properly, in winter the driveway became a forbidding sheet of ice that didn’t melt until late in the spring. Proulx, however, was still in love with Wyoming.

One day, driving west from Laramie she saw that “the sky was filled with stretched-out laminar wave clouds” and over one piece of property in particular she “saw to the west…one cloud in the shape of an immense bird, the head and beak, the breast looming over the Rockies. I took it as a sign that I would get the property and thought ‘Bird Cloud’ should be the new name.”

Of course, Proulx does get the property, and she hires eminent Colorado architect Harry Teague to design her a home she thought would be the last home she ever lived in or wanted to live in. But, as many people know, houses that look good on paper are often notoriously difficult to translate into “the real thing,” and so it was with “Bird Cloud.” Proulx describes – in detail – all the expected obstacles as well as the unexpected ones, e.g., the laying of the concrete foundation, which had to be delayed due to the presence of a gaping hole in the Rawlins penitentiary; the kitchen floor, a lovely terracotta, which, for some reason, took on the color of raw liver; the window frames that snapped during the night with such ferocity that Proulx thought she was being burgled. And, since this is Wyoming, of course, there was the snow. And more snow. And more snow.

The building or renovating of a house can be interesting, as anyone who’s read Peter Mayle or Frances Mayes knows. However, while Proulx is no doubt a superior writer to both Mayle and Mayes, she doesn’t possess their whimsy, especially Mayle’s, when describing the building of “Bird Cloud.” When it comes to the building of “Bird Cloud,” the book suffers from “information overload.” The following paragraph is the norm, not a diversion:

Although the cold snap let go and the weather warmed up, the roof engineer and the truss company were still not in agreement. Dave was trying to track down sources and prices for Alaskan yellow cedar to use in the upstairs floors, stair treads, trim, doors. The truss company was still waiting for the roof engineer “to send detail on Section 3 where hip line hits trusses.

I’m not even sure I know what a “truss” is, and since I’m not going into the construction business, I don’t really care. While things like this can be amusing when handled by someone like the above-mentioned Peter Mayle, it becomes difficult to sympathize with Proulx’s troubles in getting her Japanese soaking tub installed, her tatami-mat exercise area built, or her Mexican talavera sink and handcrafted deer antler drawer pulls installed “just so.”

And then there’s the frustration of not really letting the reader get to know the people who are building this spectacular home for Proulx. Rather than referring to them by name, Proulx has the maddening habit of concocting strange nicknames for almost all of them: Uphill Bob, Mr. Busybody, the James Gang, Mr. Floorfix, Catfish, Mr. Solar, etc. The result is that they seem more like cartoon characters than real people.

The drifting from subject to subject didn’t bother me in the slightest in this book, however, there were some subjects that I really didn’t find too interesting. Although I certainly care about the injustices done to the Native Americans, I’m not too keen on learning their history, and Proulx gives us a heavy dose of it in Bird Cloud. If you’re familiar with Proulx’s work, outside of The Shipping News, you’ll know that she is fascinated with the “Old West” and outraged at the injustices done to the Native Americans by the invading Europeans. At one point she writes:

Running through everything these people [Indians] thought or knew, like the vast root systems of grasses that extend deep beneath the surface…were spiritual filaments that guided behavior and nourished rich mythologies. We today can barely comprehend the interconnectedness of their observations of the natural world, their ideas and lives.

I wonder if Proulx, whose writing I generally admire, realizes that the statement above is false. Of course we can comprehend the “interconnectedness of their observations of the natural world, their ideas and lives” and many of us do. One person who certainly does is Louise Erdrich, whose books are filled with a deep understanding of the Native American and Native American lore.

I realize there will be many readers out there who will love the parts of Bird Cloud that deal with Native American history, just as there will be readers who dislike Proulx’s long odes to nature, the parts of the book I found most fascinating. To me, these were lyrical and beautiful and poetic. I don’t know how anyone “in love” with language could fail to appreciate the passages like the following:

The river at sunset became mottled green and peach in patterns that recalled the marbled end pages of old books. Quickly the evening dusk filled with darting swallows, their dark bodies gradually absorbed by the intensifying gloom. The great horned owl called from the island and everything fell silent except the murmuring river and a more distant owl. In this place there was so much to know.

Proulx has always been near-to-unmatched when describing the natural world, and this lyricism is abundant in Bird Cloud. One doesn’t soon forget her descriptions of spring days when “the air was stitched with hundreds and hundreds of swallows.” However, to her credit, Proulx also gives us a vibrant picture of the not-so-pretty side of life in Wyoming:

Winds of seventy miles an hour are not uncommon in winter and blasts over a hundred miles an hour occur a few times each season, the source of the old joke that Wyoming snow does not melt, it just wears out.

The sagebrush seems nearly black and beaten low by the ceaseless wind. Why would anyone live here, I think. I live here.

Other passages, though, make you wonder if the writer of such poetic lyricism has been replaced with another writer, one much less skilled:

I like a colorful, handily cluttered kitchen and Bird Cloud’s cabinets and drawers in red, violet, aquamarine, burnt orange, cobalt, lime, brick, John Deere green and skipjack blue inspires stir-fries, osso buco, grilled prawns, Argentinean salads of butterhead lettuce, tomato, sweet onion, roast lamb with Greek cucumber and dill sauce, frittatas, rhubarb sauce with glasses of dry Riesling for the cook. You bet.

It staggers the imagination.

When winter descends, Proulx’s idyll becomes a prison. The mercury falls to at least fifteen below zero; the road, which the real estate agent assured Proulx was plowed, is not, and it becomes totally impassible. The “hero sun came our for a quarter hour, then fell as thought wounded.” It’s the snow that finally drives Proulx out:

So ended the first and only full year I was to spend at Bird Cloud. I returned in March and for several more years came in early spring and stayed until the road-choking snow drove me out, but I had to face the fact that no matter how much I loved the place, it was not, and never could be, the final home of which I had dreamed.

Wyoming has always been notoriously difficult on its inhabitants. It takes a strong and resilient person to live in a climate that’s so harsh for six months every year, and even the tough Proulx is no match for Wyoming in the winter.

There’s no denying the fact that Annie Proulx is, and has been, one of America’s foremost writers. But Bird Cloud, though a strange and beautiful book, is also an uneven one. It’s difficult to describe, difficult to review, and, though it often soars, it’s also sometimes difficult to read.

Despite the fact that Proulx couldn’t live at "Bird Cloud," the book, as a whole, still seems to celebrate the theme of finding one’s true home, one’s place in life. For even though Wyoming’s harsh winters drove Proulx to seek refuge in New Mexico, Wyoming in the summer did seem to be the place where she belonged. It is with nostalgia and regret that we read Proulx’s characteristically unsentimental pronouncement on the entire – and very costly – adventure. “Years later,” she writes, “I still wonder if I should have cut my losses.”


Recommended: It was very difficult to rate this book due to its unevenness. Parts of it are definitely five-star, while others, such as the passage in which Proulx describes her multi-colored kitchen, are only deserving of a two. Still, fans of Proulx and Wyoming might like the book. Others will probably find it frustrating, especially if you’re not into Native American history, home construction or wildlife.

Note: A quick search on the Internet will reveal that “Bird Cloud” is now for sale for an asking price of $3.7 million. If you’ve got that kind of cash, and you have a hankering for Wyoming, you can experience firsthand all the highs and lows that Proulx writes about in this book. Let us know about your experiences if you buy the ranch, and good luck in getting that road plowed.

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