by Ann M. Colford

Urban dwellers often derisively refer to the hardscrabble landscape of eastern Montana as fly-over country. With a population density of less than one person per square mile, the land looks raw, desolate and endless, whether seen from ground-level or 30,000 feet. Such a place breeds stoic and hard-working people, those few hardy souls who cling to the uncompromising demands of ranch living.

Judy Blunt was born of this hardpack soil, a third-generation Montanan who learned its lessons early: "This land owes you nothing... Shut up, pay attention, do what you're told... Get tough."

From her childhood and adolescence through years of marriage to a rancher 12 years her senior, she struggled to conform to the role assigned to her by gender and geography. Ranch duties from canning to calving became second nature to her, as did the realities of living 50 ribbed gravel miles from the nearest doctor and knowing that she would never have a voice in the management of the ranch. She buried herself in hard work and kept her thoughts to herself until the day she bought a typewriter from the Sears and Roebuck catalog after saving up for three years.

Her frustration poured out onto the paper, a flicker of selfhood that otherwise only flared in the tip of a forbidden cigarette. Like an ember on the dry prairie, it smoldered under the surface for a long time before finally catching the air and breaking free. At 31, she left behind everything she knew, packed her three children and a few clothes into the car, and headed west for Missoula, where she entered the University of Montana's journalism program as a freshman. Despite her deep knowledge of ranch life, she felt unprepared for the world beyond Phillips County.

"When I first came to Missoula as a freshman, I had to learn how to live in a town with stoplights," she says. "Even the young kids seemed worldly to me, so I didn't tell my story to anyone. I didn't think they'd be interested."

Turns out a lot of people are interested in Blunt's story, however. Her memoir, Breaking Clean, a collection of essays about her coming of age on the ranch, took the publishing world by storm last year, earning her kudos from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and the New York Times, to name just a few. The book became a national bestseller and won Blunt the Whiting Writer's Award. The once-anonymous ranch wife gave interviews on NPR and television through much of last spring, in between her teaching and advising duties at the University of Montana. And just this week came the announcement that Breaking Clean won the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association 2002 award for nonfiction. Blunt is now back out on tour to support the book's release in paperback, and she'll be reading at Auntie's on Wednesday.

Blunt didn't set out to write a memoir, much less an expos & eacute; of her community. The title essay, which serves as an abstract for the rest of the book, began as a classroom assignment to summarize her Montana experience in four pages or less. A few days later, her professor, William Bevis, asked if he could read her essay aloud to the rest of the class, and Blunt reluctantly agreed.

"I sat there and waited for them to start laughing at it, but they didn't," she remembers. Instead, the other students sat spellbound as her tale unfolded. "That was a life-changing moment, and I knew, even as it was happening, that it was moving me beyond any place I had been before. That's one of the things that gave me the courage to continue."

Later, that same essay won her a graduate fellowship and attracted the attention of her literary agent when it was published. "And I even sold it for enough to buy a used washing machine," quips the ever-pragmatic Blunt. When the agent wanted to sign Blunt right away, the author insisted she didn't have time to write a book. "She took 25 pages of my classroom assignments with her to New York to shop them around, with the understanding that I'd sign with her if she sold anything," Blunt explains. "I said, 'Go ahead, knock yourself out,' and she came back with three bids."

Even with publishers lining up to buy her book, it still had to be written, and Blunt was busy with school, work and child-rearing. She spent the better part of a decade working on the book in between semesters and construction jobs.

"I never had a sustained narrative for the book," she says. "I just did it in chunks. There are gaps in the timeline, but that made it not such a huge undertaking."

One of the unexpected pleasures of Blunt's prose is the subtle dark humor that's woven in among stories of frost-bitten cattle, severed fingers and boarding 50 miles from home for high school. Perhaps the unrelenting life-and-death reality of ranching - along with seeing the same few faces over and over - led to a kind of fatalism that can only be tempered by humor. At her family's ranch, the humor came packaged in stories that separated insiders from outsiders, like directions to the local post office, which ended with a confused stranger parked next to the old chicken house that was used for mail-sorting. Time and apocryphal telling softened the harsh messages in so many of the stories.

A single line in her opening essay later caused Blunt a disproportionate share of headaches. One sentence described how her overbearing father-in-law took a sledgehammer to her beloved typewriter one day when she was late getting lunch on the table. That scene resonated with reviewers and became one of the most quoted parts of the book. Blunt says she mentioned to early interviewers that the actual physical facts of the episode were less dramatic than her sentence might indicate, but no one picked up on it until last May when her ex-father-in-law -- whose name has been changed in the book, by the way -- wrote a letter to the Great Falls Tribune saying that the whole thing never happened.

In a later interview with Blaine Harden of the New York Times, Blunt explained that indeed the typewriter had survived her father-in-law's wrath and the line was meant to be symbolic of the oppressive atmosphere in the household rather than a reporting of fact. The debate polarized Phillips County, but the buzz echoed in the wider literary world as well, with critics arguing about just how factually accurate a memoir must be. The sentence has been removed from the paperback edition, at Blunt's request. Now, months later, she is rather sanguine about the whole affair.

"Journalists get nailed if their facts are wrong, which is understandable, but it does make them rather humorless about the creative use of metaphor," she says wryly. "The typewriter was the perfect metaphor for that summer of my life. Fact is never the reason why people read memoirs. They read for the story. Writing about something just because it happened is probably the worst reason for writing. You've got to write for the story."

Publication date: 02/06/03

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