No Place Like Home: Notes from a Western Life is another of Linda Hasselstrom's fine collection of essays harvested from earlier publications and expanded and rewritten and supplemented by new pieces, then organized into a thematically coherent whole. The theme of No Place (there is a conscious irony in the title) is an enlargement and sharpening of questions that resonate through most of Hasselstrom's earlier work: What constitutes community in the rural American West? How do these communities shape and impact the land? How do we reconcile our need to belong and our need to be alone, our need to participate and to witness?
In No Place, Hasselstrom contrasts three communities: the community of the land in rural South Dakota, where she lives on the family ranch; the dissonant, discordant urban community of nomads on Warren Avenue in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where she lives with Jerry; and the intentional, temporary communities of women writers she creates at Windbreak House, on the ranch. Through the linear arrangement of essays, she takes her readers back and forth from one place to another, while the diachronic echoes of theme and counter-theme require us to reflect on the nature of these disparate communities and on the efforts each community must make to hold itself together against fragmenting forces, both internal and external. As well, we are led to ask what compromises the strong individual, insisting on her own uniqueness, must make in order to live in community.
In many ways, this is not an optimistic or cheerful book. The community of ranchers and ranches in South Dakota, as Hasselstrom shows us in "Selling the Ranch" and "Dear John: How to Move to the Country" is increasingly imperiled by people who acquire the land and use it unwisely, through human greed, arrogance, and ignorance. In "Tomato Cages are Metaphors," the delicate balance of community life on Warren Avenue is disturbed by drug users, and in "Shoveling Snow in the Dark," proliferating subdivisions around Cheyenne disturb the natural balance of older human and animal communities with their profligate (and addictive) uses of water and soil. Wastefulness and waste (natural byproducts of greed and consumption) are deeply compelling issues, demonstrated in "It Doesn't Just Happen," an essay—both funny and terribly unfunny—about sewage failure on Warren Avenue. Lack of personal responsibility and failures of communication drives wedges into communities, splitting them apart. A failure of vision dims the future.
But Hasselstrom's pervading pessimism is tempered here, as always in her work, by a clear-eyed compassion for people, plants, and animals as they do their best (and worst) to make their peace with their habitats and their neighbors. Neither ranch life nor Cheyenne life is easy, but both are occasionally made lovely by a true (if transient) neighborliness, even the "brief fellowship" of a glance, a gesture. Most hopeful of all, for Hasselstrom, is the writing community at Windbreak House. About the women who come there, Hasselstrom says, "When each goes home, I want her to be paying attention to her own home ground, therefore more inclined to be attentive to, and respectful of, its needs" (172). With Hasselstrom as a teacher, I'm sure she will!
No Place Like Home is the very personal story of a woman who lives betwixt and between. Her voice is uniquely individual, wry and cranky and feisty, and her descriptions are rarely clouded by sentiment—or rather, the sentiment is buried beneath the surface, in the essential perception of the place or the thing, rather than in easy expression. For all its love of place, this is a book by a writer who sees places and people too clearly to be at home with any of them: hence the irony of the title. Hasselstrom knows that home is not to be found wholly in any single place or person, but in the independent, self-reliant, responsible self who acknowledges an unavoidable need for commitment to community but leaves the neighbors—all the neighbors—alone:
I think of the land as a job, not as an asset; I'd work for its best interests because I live here, even if I didn't own it... Unseen by me or anyone else, its true inhabitants—the grasses and bushes, the underground water, the antelope, deer, rabbits, snakes, toads, meadowlarks, and dung beetles—are going about the business of living as they should. Part of my job is leaving them alone to do theirs.
This is a strong, pulls-no-punches book about what holds us together and drives us apart. It's important reading, no matter where you live.
Linda Hasselstrom writes, ranches, and conducts writing retreats for women on the South Dakota ranch homesteaded by her grandfather. She has edited several important women's anthologies, including Leaning Into the Wind, a collection of writings by western women, and the author of several memoirs, notably Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work and Going Over East: Reflections of a Rancher Woman. Visit her website.
Check out our interview with the author of No Place Like Home.
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