Imagine a windswept northern plain, a two-lane highway, and the ramshackle ranch buildings you see from the road. If you're curious about the lives and dreams of the people in such places, if you're curious about who moves on and who stays behind to run the ranch, and if you're curious about a woman forging her way in an academic world resistant to women, Mary Clearman Blew's This is Not the Ivy League is a must-read memoir.
As a little girl Mary Clearman watched her mother "stand over her pitch-pine fire to tend the branding irons. Every chance she gets, she'll unroll her knitting from a clean dish towel and add a row or two before my father strides over to reach through the corral fence and swap a cold iron for a hot one." Her multi-tasking mom is a role model, but the author takes a new route. She consumes the few books available and her schoolteacher grandmother finds her more. She craves more than teaching in a one-room schoolhouse before marriage.
A year into her scholarship-funded education at the University of Montana, she married her first husband. Instead of dropping out to find work and fund his education as women did at that time, she earned one degree after another and entered the job market with a doctorate in English literature and no job prospects. Seattle, where her husband found a job, was not interested in Blew's credentials, but an ad in the Seattle Times told her that Northern Montana College was looking for an Assistant Professor with a doctorate. As soon as she assured department chair Dr. Craig that she had completed her doctorate he invited her to interview and sent her a ticket. The job was hers.
This is Not the Ivy League is her account of being trailed by a reluctant husband and small children through graduate school, and being badgered by a whole new set of pressures, prejudices, and politics in Havre, Montana.
The rural setting and Blew's feisty response to it drew me in. Montana is a uniquely rugged and beautiful place, but it was Blew's spirit and determination that kept me turning pages. Blew taught Freshman Comp, revived the school's drama department, became an administrator, ran a nursing program, and finally taught creative writing at the University of Idaho.
Based on the quality of Blew's writing, I doubt that she's responsible for the proofreading errors. They were small glitches that did not affect my appreciation of the story.
Blew's memoir is an honest, tense, and balanced behind-the-scenes account of defying tradition and accepting blame. Her settings are atmospheric, her scenes are rebellious and her story will inspire anyone in pursuit of goals that seem out of the box. This is Not the Ivy League is a part of the American Lives Series edited by Tobias Wolff. I strongly recommend it.
Mary Clearman Blew is the author of the acclaimed essay collection All But the Waltz, the memoir Balsamroot, and the novel Jackalope Dreams. She is a professor of English at the University of Idaho and has twice won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, once in fiction and once in nonfiction. She is also the winner of a Western Heritage Award and the Western Literature Association's Distinguished Achievement Award.
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