Novelist

Another Page: ‘Bound Like Grass’

One of the more remarkable books I’ve read in the past few years is this memoir, by Great Falls writer Ruth McLaughlin. In it, she details the story of her family’s struggle — ultimately unsuccessful — to survive on homesteaded land in the northeastern corner of Montana.

The impressive cover endorsements, from the likes of Mary Clearman Blew and Judy Blunt and William Kittredge, are both on-point and yet somehow lacking (and I say this not to denigrate those who praise McLaughlin’s book but rather as an attempt to feebly underscore just how original and striking the book really is).

Clearman Blew: “… Ruth McLaughlin refutes the romantic myths that have distorted our view of the agrarian past.”

Blunt: “Her voice is quiet, authentic, and respectful, even as she asks the hard questions and explores the hard truths.”

Kittredge: “These lives are absolutely American, and profoundly significant.”

All true, undeniably so.

Still, I struggled for a long time to put my finger on what, exactly, so captured me in the pages of McLaughlin’s book, and I may still fall short of a full answer. Here’s my best attempt: She writes so unblinkingly, without sentiment or equivocation, and yet so evocatively that I was propelled through the pages, knowing in my bones that McLaughlin was offering authenticity and whole-hearted examination of her life and the lives of those who lived alongside her, and yet never once did I see the storyteller’s strings. To read this book is to move into every corner of the human heart — not because you’re manipulated into doing so, but because that’s where McLaughlin’s clear-eyed and confidently voiced writing takes you.

Twice, I’ve heard McLaughlin read from this book — already a Montana Book Award winner — and each time, she chose an early chapter titled “Hunger.” There is much to consider there. Here’s a taste, where she contrasts her eating habits as a young woman, on her own for the first time, with her memories of the farm:

I ate what I wanted after work and gained weight. I found a store that carried fat red franks, and downed three or four at once. I bought half gallons of ice cream that I spooned from the box, huddled in bed to keep warm; I’d never had more than two scoops at once on top of Jell-O. Trembling from cold, my lips and tongue numb, I stopped just short of finishing the carton.

I could finally have all the ice cream that I wanted, I could turn bright red from franks (my brother maintains that the nitrates from our years of processed meat will keep us pink in our coffins long past death). But neither restored my depleted self as had my grandmother’s bath lunch.

Montanans who write memoirs often see their books compared, for good or ill, against Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky. A longtime devotee of Doig’s, I haven’t found much merit in those comparisons. Until now. Ruth McLaughlin’s book stands well with that masterpiece, and on its own.

2 Responses

  1. I share your enthusiasm for Bound Like Grass. Here’s what I said in my review of it:

    “McLaughlin writes with the blazing clarity of prairie sun on a cloudless day. She uses writing techniques like a master novelist to turn what might seem the most ordinary of lives into a compelling story.”

    You can read the rest of my review here.

    July 6, 2011 at 9:52 am

  2. Lancaster

    Thank you, Mark. I remember your raving about this book long before I cracked it open.

    July 6, 2011 at 9:55 am