Ron McFarland offers a conversation. Many of us who have read western memoirs have dipped into the pool examined here: Ivan Doig, Mark Spragg, Mary Clearman Blew, Teresa Jordan, Kim Barnes, Judy Blunt, Sidner J. Larson, Janet Campbell Hale, William Kittredge, and Terry Tempest Williams. As such, it's a pleasure to share in McFarland's recounting of his selected texts by these authors and to note his comparisons among them, matching two at a time under critical headings such as "Father and Sons in Place," "Western Family Albums," "Coming to Womanhood," "Indian Lives," and "Ecomemoir."
McFarland does not labor overmuch with a unifying thesis, or the sort of critical pressure which might move these readings into analyses of traditional western [End Page 304] memoirs read as postmodern texts or as narratives of settlement complicated by an authorial authority that can't be abdicated. (For instance, a text that intends and follows through on this critical comparison of texts is Narrating the American West: New Forms of Historical Memory by Jordana Finnegan.) On the other hand, the book's intentions are stated on the back cover: "By comparing memoirs representing states that share similar demographic, ecological, and socio-economic characteristics, this historical and literary analysis reveals both commonalities and divergences among Western memoirs" (italics added).
McFarland begins his book with a synopsis of current thought in autobiography, citing among others Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson's work as well as Kathleen Boardman and Gioia Woods's publication in WAL of "Western Autobiography and Memoir: A Panel of Writers" (WAL 37.2 ). This introductory chapter is intended to frame what follows; yet rather than pushing the questions implied in this framing, McFarland largely recounts similarities and differences between the memoirs' storylines.
The strongest contribution of McFarland's book and what ultimately makes it a productive read is its gathering of information and reference materials related to these familiar texts, bringing a sort of refresher course together. There is a looseness to the writing—a discussion of Jordan's chapter "The Death of the Hired Hand" moves into a sideline on the future of the industry of corporate farming in North America, for instance, and the chapter on "Coming to Womanhood" employs twenty-year-old theories on feminism fairly casually—but still the reading of the book is a consistent reminder of what one knows of the texts under consideration, of the stories we've loved, and it provides an opportunity to note with McFarland the many "ah-ha" moments that unite writers who for so many of us have become true characters in western literature.
Ron McFarland is clearly writing about a subject he loves and the people and stories he knows well, allowing him to easily reference other readings in the field. The book is a pleasure to read and quite useful as a sifting-through of our own memories of the texts he discusses. [End Page 305]