Mary Budd Flitner has been part of prominent ranching families in Wyoming for more than fifty years, writing often in various publications about the work, as well as the joys, of several generations on big working ranches. This series of memoir essays discusses topics familiar to any western rancher.
Yet while many ranchers have continued working through temperatures of 50 below zero, through divorce, debt and disillusionment, most have not written about their experiences, being too busy to record or reflect. This articulate ranch woman has given voice to generations of women—and the men and ranches they married. She is particularly astute as she discusses the indignation with which a woman who once was a "little bitty cowgirl" expresses herself when she is told, at ninety, to stay out of the corral she owns—because hired hands fear she'll get hurt.
She understands the changes wrought by age. "I thought I'd be more graceful," she writes, "more accepting of change. I thought the handoff of responsibility and authority would be more reciprocal, and more gradual." She doesn't want to be sad or angry or fearful; she wants to let go with grace.
Thus she writes how a ranch "belongs" to women who are still considered second-rate in ranch country. In spite of the fact that sheep were an integral part of her ranching experiences (my father scorned them), and that her family's ranch land was many times larger than mine, Mary Flitner and I, along with hundreds of other silent women, share a knowledge of cattle, land, horses and ranchers limited to only a few. I've loaded bales on a horse-drawn hayrack, and driven the team while my father fed with a pitchfork. We've both felt the despair when cows, reacting to some human stupid behavior, throw their tails straight in the air, run, and have to be gathered again.
Our fathers understood "good help" and treated us with respect when we earned it. Their worst insult was to call a man who thought he was a cowboy a "farmer." We both loved our horses; she thanks 129 them, whereas I loved a tenth that many. We know there are few conversations in ranch country about "gender equality." We write, knowing our words will affect some readers, some women. We acknowledge women's books about the lives we lead, and respect their achievements.
Irony: the real truths of western ranch life are written by women, not by the men in broad-brimmed hats and jingling spurs who talk about "my ranch" to the banker from whom they are borrowing money.
My greatest disappointment with this book centers on its structure. Mary Budd Flitner is analyzing, recalling and commenting on fifty years of ranch life, and her prose is fascinating. I wish the book had been published as the foreword, or afterword, to an edited version of the diaries that were her source. Surely a life like hers should be shown to us in more detail, particularly as we move into an era when fewer and fewer people know how to do the daily work of producing the meat that most of us relish.
Mary Budd Flitner's great-grandfather drove a herd of cattle into Wyoming Territory in 1878. Four generations later, she grew up on the same land, the Diamond Tail Ranch. When she married her husband Stan Flitner, she moved to a nearby ranch in the Big Horn Basin. She has ranched and written in Wyoming for more than 50 years, and written for High Country News and other newspapers.
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