Thursday, May 01, 2008

The New Yorker: "Them Old Cowboy Songs" by Annie Proulx

For some reason, the fiction this week isn’t online. Could be they couldn’t get the rights since Proulx’s new story collection is coming out soon. In any case, “Them Old Cowboy Songs” is a story of Archie and Rose McLaverty in Wyoming in 1885, seems pretty typical for Proulx.

Spoiler Warning (since the story isn’t online)! Rose and Archie are a young married couple—Archie is only 16—setting out to make a life for themselves. They are both from difficult backgrounds (Archie’s parents died and he’s been in the care of a neighbor, but she too has now died; Rose’s mother is ill and her father is a drunk). At first things are idyllic and they are very much in love. But then Archie gets laid off from the ranch where he’s been working and heads to Cheyenne to find a job, leaving Rose behind in their cabin with a baby on the way. He has to hide the fact that he’s married because the tyrant he works for would fire him if he knew, since married men tend to want time off to go visit their wives. He tries to write a letter to Rose but doesn’t have the money for a stamp. Meanwhile, Rose is alone and miserable and there are complications with her pregnancy, and no way for her to get help. Archie, after a fall in a bog, comes down with pneumonia and can’t work, so his boss fires him. Another hand is trying to help Archie get home but they get caught in a blizzard and freeze to death. In the spring, a friend of Archie and Rose comes by and finds her mutilated body (the suggestion being that a weasel has been feasting all winter). What we know that he doesn’t know is that Rose, before she died, buried her dead child in a shallow grave and listened to the coyotes outside, too weak to stop them. The end.

And yet, despite all that, the story doesn’t have that dark a feel to me. Yes, it’s grim and there are hardships galore, all the standard stuff that anyone might imagine plus the horror of Rose’s miscarriage. But it’s 1885 and life is hard and everyone knows that. The characters know that and the reader knows that. But the ending, in which we realize that some survive the harsh life and some just disappear without a trace, is almost hopeful.

Did I like this story? No, not really. The conflict here is the man vs. nature variety and while that can be compelling it often isn’t as suspenseful or as interesting as human conflicts and those are lacking here. The story does have a tragic element since both Rose and Archie are struggling against fate and, as they must, eventually fail. But for me that isn’t enough to sustain a story anymore. On the other hand, in classic Proulx style I can picture the cabin and the land clearly and I get a good sense of these characters. I even care about them and understand what it is that they want. I’ll be interested in hearing what others have to say about it.

May 5, 2008: “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx


Anonymous said...

Proulx sets everything into place so, like a tightening lasso, Rose and Archie's fate becomes inexorable. It's masterfully done and is much like what she accomplished in "The Half-Skinned Steer." But there's conflict--in addition to the human and natural world conflict, and here, like Jack London's best, the harsh landscape is like another character. There's also conflict between the two of them, there's conflict with Archie and both bosses, there's conflict with the busybody in town--and there aren't any strings left undone, even with 10 or so principle characters. But the main thing I found interesting is that it's almost like this story has to be told--these people had such promise and yet die so alone and unknown, if they were real only this story would keep them known. So I suppose it's a voice for such desperate lives in 1880s Wyoming.

Charles O. Slavens said...

A stunning tale. I wonder how long she worked on it. I'm already looking for her other work.

Calysta said...

I read this when my first baby was five days old. She was born May 3rd but I didn't read this piece until three days after it was out. I wept and wept, holding her in my arms while holding the magazine to the light. A year later, and I'm still be dramatic about it. I had a very difficult labor and delivery and her description of Rose's labor I clearly remember even though it's been over a year since I read it... a python of pain wrapping around her mid-section (or something to that effect) and it was so dead-on to what I went through that I completely took on Rose's character. By the time I was reading her digging the grave with a silver spoon ---

I was disgusted with the story for a while. Threw away the magazine. But for some reason, the connection I suppose, I want to read it again. For more than that very personal part that I took from it the first time.

Sorry for my huge comment. Thank you for yours.