It's the early, formative years that lead us there, wherever "there" is for us. But it's the older and wiser years that sharpen our wonder at the many ways humans are shaped by where we live. And by what we do there. Home and work. There are as many variations as there are people. If we're lucky, we recognize at last, as Amy Hale Auker did, our Rightful Place.
As a little girl, she rode fence lines in West Texas with her rancher-father, who also happened to be an English teacher. She grew up loving the ranching life, and stories. Married young and for many years to a working cowboy, she reared her children on modern versions of large and small cattle outfits, and regularly walked the ranch roads that both bounded and extended her experience. Along those roads she found freedom, beauty, hardship, and the will to endure. As Auker lived the cowboy family life, she wrote about it, first in letters and small publications, eventually in the series of short essays that make up this volume. She has learned to observe with care and compassion the land, her life, and those who share it with her.
It is a strength of her writing that Auker reveals her genuine ranching woman's voice in these beautifully spare and poetic impressions. A comfortable use of cowboy vernacular lets us in and feels hospitable. Even as the tone shifts through humor and pathos and the book develops, we hear her gain the voice that is rightfully hers, for along with vignettes of ranching life, she also gives us snapshots of her personal and literary growth. Linda Hasselstrom's foreword is eloquent with appreciation for Auker's search for "knowledge of herself and the land."
Auker gives deep attention to the harsh beauty of the countryside, absorbs its strength, recognizes the fierce challenge of making a life there, and finds she has a passion for the place. In brief scenes—a rodeo dance, a suffering horse, kids at play in the haymow—Auker also paints for us the everyday yet extraordinary Western character. She reveals ranch work as real, hard, and hot when it isn't freezing, and as a daily dance with the natural world. Details give small glimpses that gradually build a larger, more coherent picture. Yet about personal difficulties and changes, she is laconic, even perhaps too cautious. It's noticeable that she skirts some things.
But we are privy to just enough of Auker's parenting and partnering, and to a few moments of personal abandon in moonlit stock tanks. She lives with the risks that her children take, teaches and observes them with respectful wonder, and counts on their help with chores. She works alongside her cowboy husband, understands how to stand up toe-to-toe, and how to gentle the untamed colt. She writes about the ranching culture and the wild land. Eventually, having brought us along like a pocket notebook, Auker acknowledges herself as a writer, and recognizes the Western plains as home to her heart. Her story ends with some ambiguity, and might have been stronger with a less careful candor, but it satisfies.
Amy Hale Auker made me miss the old days, riding quarterhorses in the pasture and wishing I were a barrel-racing queen. More than old memories, she delivered fresh appreciation for the dreams and lives of those who ranch today, and know its ways. On those ranch roads to finding her Rightful Place, Auker inspired me to look again with gratitude at my own. She's earned a good nod.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Amy Hale Auker grew up with ranching and made it her life when she married a working ranch cowboy. She raised her children while helping with the ranch work, and fit in time for writing essays, poems and fiction. This volume is a fine addition to the Voice in the American West series from Texas Tech University Press. Auker still has a day job on an Arizona ranch. Visit her website.
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