My West – Patricia Nell Warren (Wildcat Press)

Buy it now direct from Wildcat Press or from our store – My West: Personal Writings on the American West — Past, Present and Future

Patricia Nell Warren is known to
most readers as the author of The Front
and Harlan’s Race books about gays in athletics. But to those
of us privileged to have met her, she is almost instantly perceived and
understood as a Westerner. I didn’t meet her until I’d moved to California, but
I’ve conversed with her about purely Western concerns: places in Utah and
Arizona to visit, how to raise a natural-dry versus a wet garden, and even how
we each discovered our own particular “totem animals.” So I looked forward to
reading My West and having done so I
found myself at times surprised, edified, moved, and admiring. Like this now
iconic woman herself, the book is complicated, at times unexpected, well
written if usually plain-spoken, and surprisingly interesting.

I don’t mean the last to sound
patronizing. But the truth is I’d never expected to read about hay-making
techniques and machinery in Montana, or about small wildcats, or about the
specifics of gate-making, or even about some of the details of rodeo life –and
I’ll bet neither did you.

Because, as Warren makes clear
early in her preface, this book is about her
West, and not the West of movies and cliche best sellers. If she has any peers
in what she knows and writes of, it would be Larry McMurtry, Annie Proulx and
perhaps also Louise Erdich. Like them, in her novels, and now in this
compendium, she extends our own knowledge deep into this least truly understood
part of America.

Warren’s West begins with family,
and in a way, this book is an extended love-letter to her ancestors and her
precursors. These include Quarra Grant the First Nation woman who built and
decorated the Montana ranch home Warren grew up in; Conrad Kohrs, one of the
two European immigrant settler-partners who bought the extensive ranch land and
became a cattle herder; his wife Augusta (Grandma or Oma), and Warren’s father
and brother. These were all people who lived on the land, by the land, and
taught young Patricia much of what she knew and much of what she values today
and they come through as wise and strong.

Warren has divided her large book
into sections—Agriculture, Animals,. Arts, Cities, Politics, Sexuality,
Sprituality, Women and Zest. She has been writing these articles for many
years, for many differing types of publications and on-line sites, and
sometimes the topic is extremely specific (my favorites) such as wild grasses
of the West; and as often the topics are more broadly observed and commented
upon. There’s a lot of overlap, and some repetition here, but just enough to
make you feel comfortable.

I’m guessing that my favorite
pieces are studded throughout, but that the section “Women” was the most
generally intriguing to me for facts and new information. Here, Warren writes
of some of her heroines: Calamity Jane – “that awful girl”, whom she typifies
as the anti-Victorian woman. Also Janet Thompson, the first woman thoroughbred
horse trainer, and Alice Greenough, who returned women to rodeo via
“barrell-racing.” Pat Quillen, who is trying to conserve and save endangered
world species of smaller wildcats, is one of Warren’s heroines, as is Earth
Thunder, a powerful Medicine Woman who sums up much of what has been lost to

Warren correctly sees that Native
American Reservations were “prison camps” and that white misunderstanding, fear
and prejudice held back First Nation peoples and all but destroyed them.  Her essay on Two-Spirit People (what we often
think of as Berdache) should be required reading for any anthropologist,
historian, sociologist or GLBT person.

could just as easily have titled this volume, “My Life,” or “My Essays,” or
even “What I Know,”– it’s that personal, and it’s that variegated, and it’s
that diversely interesting. Like the woman herself.

Anyway, any book that gives me new
words –“Metis” for mixed blood, as well as “passamanterie” – any book that
recalls a fact I’d long forgotten –i.e. that early women’s jeans had zippers on the side, from the waist down! – and
any book that gives me new factual information – just too much to point out —
is in Patricia Nell Warren’s own plain spoken writing, a worthwhile book.
Warren’s My West is much more than

 ©2011, Felice Picano

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