When Montana and I Were Young: A Frontier Childhood by Margaret Bell, and: Writing Her Own Life: Imogene Welch, Western Rural Schoolteacher by Mary Clearman Blew, Imogene Welch (review)
- Western American Literature
- The Western Literature Association
- Volume 40, Number 1, Spring 2005
- pp. 98-101
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BOOK REVIEWS When Montana and I Were Young: A Frontier Childhood. By Margaret Bell. Edited by Mary Clearman Blew. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 250 pages, $24.95. Writing Her Own Life: Imogene Welch, Western Rural Schoolteacher. By Mary Clearman Blew and Imogene Welch. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. 288 pages, $29.95. Reviewed by Evelyn I. Funda Utah State University, Logan With previous publication of her memoirs, essays, and edited works, Mary Clearman Blew is already well known for important contributions in the area of western women’s life writing, and the Western Literature Association acknowl edged the significance of Blew’s work by presenting her with a Distinguished Achievement Award in 2004. Her two most recent publications, under review here, extend that work in compelling ways and solidify her reputation as one of the West’s most important contemporary women writers. With these works, Blew has begun to increasingly consider the boundaries of auto/biography in Stephanie Bacon. THE MISSING MONTH OR SO. 5" x 8" x 4". Diary, letter press, rubber cement, coffee, tea, and wine. August 2003. Photo courtesy Idaho Center for the Book. Reproduced with permission of the artist. BO O K REVIEW S terms of truth and fiction and to offer the possibility for collaboration and multiple voices in memoir, a genre typically known more for the “I” than the “we” and, therefore, often seen as “navel-gazing.” Acting as editor of When Montana and I Were Young: A Frontier Childhood, which was recognized with the 2003 Handcart Award (a yearly prize for an outstanding auto/biography of the West), Blew realizes that she is participat ing in life writing as a collaborative act. She discusses in her introduction how Margaret Bell (1888-1982) worked with poet and short story writer Grace Stone Coates to revise her original autobiography extensively; while that effort did not result in publication during Bell’s or Coates’s lifetimes, it did lead to Lee Rostad, Coates’s friend and biographer, who in turn contacted Mary Clearman Blew to evaluate the text she had found among Coates’s papers and help shepherd it into print at last. It was Blew’s task to recognize the historical significance of the story Bell had to tell and then edit multiple versions of the manuscript so that Bell’s own “matter-of-fact and unadorned voice” reemerged from the “mannered style superimposed” by Coates (xxii, xxv). Bell’s memoir, then, was the result of a uniquely cooperative effort of a number of women. Blew believes Bell’s memoir is important because it documents the West at the beginning of the homestead movement that would ultimately trans form Montana, it portrays a story of a woman’s survival “in a frontier world controlled by men,” and it reveals Bell’s “specific and loving but unromantic” vision of Montana and its landscape in the late nineteenth century (xxi). The story is a brutal one, full of abandonment, death, and sexual abuse. Bell’s stepfather makes Mari Sandoz’s father look like a mild-mannered ency clopedia salesman. Yet it is a story told without hint of self-pity—a quality that draws Blew’s admiration. In her work with the multiple versions of Bell’s text, Blew confronted the question of how much of the story was fiction—a central concern of modem memoirists. Blew had to negotiate what part of the story could be traced back to Coates’s shaping of the text into a typical woman’s love story and what part was Bell’s own dramatic embellishment for the sake of a good story. And where did the “truth” lie in that struggle? Blew carries the question of truth and the negotiation of multiple voices into her next project, Writing Her Own Life: Imogene Welch, Western Rural Schoolteacher, a book, to my mind, everyone interested in life writing ought to own. For those familiar with Blew’s earlier book Balsamroot: A Memoir (1994), this could be considered a kind of prequel, for it again focuses on Blew’s aunt, Imogene Welch, as she establishes her teaching career during World War II. And while that is the story of the...