There are a number of first rate stories in Annie Proulx’s collection Fine Just the Way it is. I have picked Them Old Cowboy Songs, as a typical example of the expansive style that Annie Proulx employs.
In the introduction to the story Them Old Cowboy Songs Proulx writes a message to the reader in italics before the tale begins.
‘There is a belief that pioneers came into the country, homesteaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.’
The ones who are forgotten are most often the main characters in Proulx’s stories. Men and women who are born without any prospects, and remain that way for the rest of their lives. I don’t think it would be much of a spoiler alert to say her stories often end in tragedy and death. Perhaps tragedy is not even the right word. It is as though there is no other way for these people to end up.
Them Old Cowboy Songs follows the story of Archie and Rose who stake out a homestead on poor Wyoming soil. We are told in the first paragraph that the property is called Little Weed, not after the plant life, but the name of a gold prospector who starved to death nearby. Archie is only sixteen and Rose is even younger when they marry and set out to build a cabin on the land.
The story begins in 1885, but to me, the story does not feel like a period piece. Much of the action takes place in isolated settings, so it doesn’t feel amiss that there is no mention of cars or gas seam lines. There are elements in the story, such as the details of Archie’s cowboy and ranch work, that I guess would feature more modern technologies these days, but I am sure it would still even now, be very lonely working far away from home.
Like many stories by Annie Proulx, Them Old Cowboy Songs is set over a number of years. This is a technique of hers which I applaud. It seems a current trend in short stories, is that they are set almost in real time, as though the short length of the work requires an equally short time frame. Proulx however, in her stories, usually follows someone from adulthood to death. She gives a few details about a character’s childhood but they are usually in the form of a memory of a formative moment. Sometimes though her characters could almost still be described as children, aged rapidly beyond their years by the harsh Wyoming setting.
The character of Rose in Them Old Cowboy Songs is a good example of the women of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming. Rose, like many of the women marries early, and is forced to take on the duties of the homestead. This doesn’t just entail cooking and cleaning, but being able to keep going, when despair sets into her husband. It would seem no one lives in Wyoming by choice. (My apologies to the Wyoming board of tourism if I am painting a bleak picture here.)
I will spoil the end of this story, in the hope that it will inspire a reader of this blog to read other stories in her collections. Because Archie and Rose do not have the capital to maintain work on their property, Archie travels many miles away and has to cut off communication with his young wife, as he needs to keep his marriage secret from the ranch owner, who will not let married men work for him (believing they will leave his employ at the first opportunity and go back to their family.) Therefore Archie is left wondering about the child he and Rose were expecting when he left.
Rose, alone on their property, has complications with the birth and delivers a still born child. And it just gets worse from there.
During a harsh winter later that year, Archie freezes to death in a remote shed during a snow storm. No one knows what has happened to Rose out on their property either. In the summer, when the man on the neighbouring homestead returns, he discusses that she has died some time since he was last there. You know there will be no one around to mourn for either one of them, and soon they will be forgotten. But then again, Proulx did warn us about that before the story started.