As Annie Proulx puts it: “Life is not really happy for most people.” In as much as the beauty of the land and landscape do not escape her, neither do the realities of rural life she portrayed first in the Northeast and then in the West.
Her stories—rugged, often violent, and never sentimental—may prove to be pivotal cultural markers. Ron Carlson, a Westerner, wrote in the New York Times Sunday Book Review that she “has nicely disrupted the mythology of the Old West.” Elaine Showalter, in A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers, writes “Proulx’s understanding of the West and the Western genre is radically antiheroic…her stories demythologize this world, too, such as in one of her unforgettable rodeo stories, “The Mud Below.” As she writes in her acknowledgements, ‘the elements of unreality, the fantastic and improbable, color all of these stories, as they color real life. In Wyoming not the least fantastic situation is the determination to make a living ranching in this tough and unforgiving place.’”
Proulx’s first collection of short stories was published in 1988 when she was 53. She published several subsequent books set in Vermont prior to her novel The Shipping News (1993), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, which took place in the declining fishing community of Newfoundland. With that book, Proulx’s scope of landscape and culture came into focus, bringing to international attention the lives of people in a place where their livelihood, their culture, and their community were at risk. In 1994, Proulx moved to the big sky and open sightlines of Wyoming. Three collections of short stories and a novel followed, all set in the West. She often uses memoirs and journals of people in the area as the basis of stories, and she is a consummate collector of overheard conversation. Joyce Carol Oates noted in the New York Review of Books that Proulx assimilates place much as her Western literary counterpart Cormac McCarthy does: “as a landscape both historical and symbolic.”
When she was a girl, Proulx’s mother, an artist, taught her to paint before she could read. Looking at landscapes for long periods taught her to notice detail, and everywhere she has lived—from Maine to Vermont, Montreal, Newfoundland, Texas, and Wyoming—she has focused her eye on setting. “Place comes first; what is this place, what makes it this way, what is the geology, what is the prevailing climate, what’s the weather like, how do people make a living, what grows here, what animals are here. All of this stuff I do first, and then the stories just are there because the place dictates what happens.”
Excerpt from “The Great Divide,” Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 (2008)
Hi was nine years older than Helen. In the war he had suffered a whiff of gas and a wound in his right thigh. He came home with a limp, brusquely unwilling to farm with his father and brothers. The family did not know what to make of him, and his father sang in a sarcastic voice the new song that every farmer knew—“How you gonna keep em down on the farm, after they seen Paree?”
But of course he had not gone to Paris.
“I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction,” he said, as though his refusal to visit the City of Light somehow punished the French, whom he called “the Froggies,” in a jocular, insulting tone. Hi’s life now seemed to him a valuable gift that must not be wasted when so many had died in French mud for reasons he still did not understand. He knew he had to get away from his family, from Tabletop with its relentless corn and quivering horizon. He wanted a frontier, though it seemed to him that the frontiers had all disappeared in his grandfather’s time. He was, without knowing it, searching for a purpose that his spared body might carry out. Helen, nineteen years old and with long wood-brown hair, came into view as an island to the shipwrecked. They would make their own frontier.
Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 (2008)
Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 (2004)
That Old Ace in the Hole (2002)
Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999)
Accordion Crimes (1996)
The Shipping News (1993)
Heart Songs and Other Stories (1988)
Books That Changed My Life, PEN World Voices at the New York Public Library, May 4, 2008
The Scripting News, by Jessica Winter, The Village Voice, November 22, 2005
Interview on the BBC World Service, World Book Club, September 30, 2008