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BOOK REVIEWS 3 7 9 QhostWest: Reflections Past and Present. By Ann Ronald. N orm an: University of Oklahom a Press, 2002. 256 pages, $29.95. Reviewed by Glen Love University of Oregon Wallace Stegner claimed in “History, Myth, and the Western Writer” that if you’re a westerner and a writer, “you don’t choose between the past and the present; you try to find the connection, you try to make the one serve the other” (The Sound of Mountain Water [1969] 200). Ann Ronald is a connector in this fine, understated book of travel, remembrance, and discovery through the west­ ern states. Like Stegner and Willa Cather and Ivan Doig, Ann Ronald is hooked on history and western places. Like geographer Robert Sack, she is alive to the ways that places help us pull together concepts that modem life and academic walls tend to break apart. In her book’s travels, Ronald confronts a compelling place in each of the seventeen western states. Some places are historically renowned, or cultural icons, like the Custer battlefield, Mount Rushmore, or Death Valley’s Scotty’s Castle. Others are places of no particular fame, but those that encompass a more personal interest. Wherever she goes, the author reveals not only an active and sympathetic mind at work on the events and personages of the past and the books about them, but also a keen eye for the region’s present inhabitants, including its plant and animal life. In Gary Snyder’s phrase, she knows the flow­ ers. But what most distinguishes this book is the sense the reader gets of the author’s honesty and inquiring sensitivity in talking to local people, often strangers, about their places and lives. This sensitivity extends, of course, to her own involvement and does not blunt her artist’s sense ofgetting beneath the sur­ face of places and lives, where the real meanings are. At its best, Ronald’s work gives us textured places, palimpsests of history upon which are inscribed the lives and concerns of present-day dwellers of the place. Upon these are laid further inscriptions, the experiences and interpreta­ tions of the writer. I find that it all works best when Ronald herself has a past connection with the place chosen. For example, in her chapter on North Dakota—a seemingly unlikely candidate for special treatment—Ronald focuses (like the opening of Cather’s A Lost Lady) upon forgotten little railroad towns, this time along the Empire Builder train route through Dakota, which was Ronald’s commuting route on wintry journeys from her Seattle home to gradu­ ate school in Chicago, thirty years earlier. (Again, the reader’s mind reverberates to such weather-conscious, midwestem train riders as Cather’s Jim Burden and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway.) Now, Ronald stops at some of these forgotten towns and talks to local his­ torians and old-timers. Ghost towns, mostly, and ghostly old-timers like museum keeper Avis, who has lived her life in her town and now looks after the artifacts of a lost time. ‘“I worry about all the things we have here. Where will they go if 3 8 0 WAL 3 7 .3 F a l l 2 0 0 2 no one cares? Who’ll take care of the place after I’m gone?”’ (105). Stories like Avis’s are rendered more poignant by Ronalds Burden-like (Cather-like) pres­ ence in the telling, the cosmopolitan narrator from the Great World far beyond the flat prairie horizon visible fromAvis’s museum window. Ronald makes a new story out of the unburdening, one which may help all participants, including the reader, to remember a little longer. Similar depths are experienced in other GhostWest stories, like Ronald’s visit to Cather country and to cowboy Texas and to the Girl Scout camp on Hood Canal, where she spent the summers of her youth. From these places, where love and need and memory meet, we get fine stories. This book is a great read. May it encourage students and others ofus to story those places which lodge in our minds like an old song. John Muir’s Last Journey: South...


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pp. 379-380
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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