- Crossing the Plains with Bruno by Annick Smith
While many narratives have conveyed the freedom and fresh awareness that setting out on the road can bring, nearly all chronicle travel in company: they’re buddy stories, parent-and-child stories, companionable rebel stories. Longtime Montana writer and filmmaker Annick Smith’s Crossing the Plains with Bruno, in contrast, celebrates the pleasure and insight that one’s own company can bring during a solo expedition, the possibilities that time alone can offer for engaging deeply with landscape and history, and for meditating on memory, love, and mortality.
As the title suggests, of course, Smith is not “alone,” strictly speaking, on the two-week journey that forms the subject of this book: she’s accompanied by her ninety-pound chocolate Lab, the eponymous Bruno. Affable, energetic, and charming, Bruno [End Page 273] serves not just as a good companion but also an anchor in the here and now. While along the way Smith continually engages in freeassociational musings, Bruno’s affectionate wet nose, periodic need for an outdoor break, or response to something external always bring her back to the immediate circumstances, to the particular natural world in which she’s moving at the moment.
Smith’s drive takes her from her home in Montana to Illinois, where she visits with her nearly one-hundred-year-old mother, first in a retirement home and then at a family cottage on Lake Michigan, before turning homeward again. The narrative progresses day by day, tracking progress from western Montana through the northern Great Plains and back. Landmarks, hamlets, and natural features typically spark the narrator’s meditations, which range widely to topics including family, local and regional western history, philosophy and literature, change and aging and loss, and the poignant bonds that can develop between humans and dogs. Given Smith’s myriad connections with writers important in recent western literature (her partner William Kittredge, her late husband Dave Smith, Richard Hugo, etc.) and her own prominence as a writer and filmmaker, the narrative also affords an affectionate, intimate glimpse of an important literary cohort.
Despite the chronological structure of the frame narrative, this is a memoir told in bits and pieces; its snapshots and reflections abruptly shift topics, jump forward in time, or loop back as the narrator’s mind moves. Just as with the journey it chronicles, reading this book demands a slow pace, an attention to circumstantial details as the big picture very gradually and provisionally emerges. Some readers might grow impatient with the demands that such a structure poses (and the apparently miscellaneous nature of some of the transitions), and at times the precision of historical details about particular places might tax the pretext that Smith is remembering spontaneously as she encounters the location. Still the “digressions” (though that is an inaccurate term, given the book’s implicit point about the complicated nature of human memory and its invitation to enter another’s consciousness) are thoroughly engaging in and of themselves. Smith’s self-revelation is poignant; her sense of humor (often inspired by something Bruno has done) provides a necessary counterpoint to weighty reflections. She describes [End Page 274] the natural world in language at once lyrical and precise; she tells wonderful stories, some deeply moving (of the aftermath of her husband’s death), others with an amusing, frankly mixed tone (about the nursing home where her mother lives). She’s a glorious prose stylist. Over the course of the book the narrator becomes a deeply engaging character, and the reader is invited to acknowledge the inseparability of past and present, sacred and mundane.
Some other reviews of Crossing the Plains with Bruno have focused on its charming canine protagonist; the poignancy of loving and losing pets has been posed as central to the work’s appeal. Without fundamentally disagreeing (and while affirming that this theme will endear the book to dog lovers), it’s important also to emphasize the book’s broader appeal as a memoir, in particular as a memoir by a contemporary western woman...