When I Came West
by Laurie Wagner Buyer

University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-806-14059-9.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 02/24/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

When I Came West is the story of Laurie Buyer's transformation from a timid urban girl afraid of mice to a seasoned wilderness woman who could butcher her own meat, grow her own food, and take care of herself. In the early 1970s, at the age of twenty, she went to live in the wilderness of Montana with a man who calls himself "Makwi Witco," Crazy Wolf, whom she knew only through a short correspondence. Not the wisest choice in the world, perhaps, but Buyer tells her tale with a blunt candor and honesty that many readers will find appealing—especially those who would like to create a wilderness life for themselves.

There are many things about this book that I enjoyed. A homesteader myself, I appreciated Buyer's story of a deepening engagement with the wilderness landscape and the wild animals of her new home. I valued her care and concern for the domestic animals she tended, and smiled at her descriptions of her relationships with her goat clan. (Yes, goats are really like that!) I also enjoyed the book's narrative style: I had read her first memoir, Spring's Edge: A Ranch Wife's Chronicle, and found some of the same lyricism in this second memoir. And I understand the romantic appeal of a life on the land anchors Buyer in place, long after the romance of a love affair (perhaps mostly in her imagination) has faded.

The book does raise some difficult issues, though. What are we to make of a 20-year-old woman who leaves her urban home and family to live with a 33-year-old man whom she has never met—a man who (as she describes him) seems to be more interested in her ability to work on his homestead than to share in a loving relationship? In fact, her descriptions of Bill make his brutality so clear that it is difficult to read without thinking something like "Why doesn't this woman pack up and leave?" She does, finally—when they are ejected from the homestead by its owners. But she returns to the relationship after a year or so, without any apparent (or at least reported) examination of it.

And that is the crux of my concern with this book. Memoir is reflective. Unlike autobiography (a just-the-facts-ma'am genre), memoir allows the writer (and the reader) to step back from the life-narrative and think about its significance. Now, years after the events of her life, how does the writer feel about the choices she made, the accidents that befell her, the people she met? The memoirist tells the story, but more than that, she tells the story-of-the-story, not just the events of her life, but the why of the choices she made. Memoir is not just the account of the lived life, but the reflective understanding of why that life was chosen and what it means. There are snatches of this kind of reflection in Buyer's memoir, but there's not much of it. I wish there were more.

That said, many readers will find this book enjoyable, will learn what life in the wilderness is all about, and will admire Buyer's courage and fortitude as she chooses wildness over a comfortable urban life.

Laurie Wagner Buyer is an award-winning novelist and poet with an M.F.A. in creative writing from Goddard College. She is the author of several works, including Spring's Edge and Infinite Possibilities: A Haiku Journal. She now lives in Llano, Texas. Visit her website.

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