A Western novel both dusty and human
January 31, 2007
For many years Bill Kittredge has been revered in the environmental world as one of the writers who defines the West. It’s not enough to take Jane Smiley’s word and call him “prophetic.” Nor could it be descriptive enough to say his stories are largely human with expansive room for landscape. Rather, for lovers of the West, sitting in an oversized chair and reading one of Kittredge’s books is like going home. Now, following a highly acclaimed memoir, two collections of short stories and two collections of essays, Kittredge has finally come out with his first novel, “The Willow Field.”
With a title that feels gentle and slow, the book alights into a passionate story from the beginning and evolves with grace. The tale begins in the 1930s, with okies and dust to go around, and follows a cocky young kid from a Reno, Nev., family who drops out of school to become a buckaroo. He’s not a rodeo jock, but a man of open range and open future. Early in the story he finds himself in a position few can imagine today. He has just completed a drive of horses from Northern California to Calgary, Alberta. With $100 in his pocket and two horses, he’s on his own.”He felt nothing of his old confusions about what to do,” writes Kittredge. “He was clear in his head and sure-handed and at ease. The sun rose and shadows from the cottonwoods by the river leaped off toward the west. So this is it, he thought. Here it is.” There doesn’t seem to be any moral to the story beyond that. The characters aren’t filled with a sticky morality, nor are they swept clean of the dirt the West deposits on those who make a living from the land.
Kittredge’s characters move through parts of the West that even today defy fast-moving development and modernity. The travels pass the Steens Mountains in Oregon and up through sleepy parts of Idaho. At the same time, however, the story traverses a West that no longer exists. The very idea of running horses from California to Canada seems insane in this century.It’s that love of the past, of a West that has changed and grown, and also died, that brings this novel alive. But Kittredge also shows that he loves language and dialogue as much as he loves the land.Kittredge farmed until he was 35 and then taught writing at the University of Montana until his retirement in 1997. Perhaps after all those years he finally finished the novel he meant to write, and included every last tasty morsel.