Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Bird Cloud: A Memoir by Annie Proulx

Ordinarily, when I see a book about a person who buys some land and builds a house, my interest doesn’t go much further. However, when the builder is noted author, Annie Proulx, and the house is her dream home in Wyoming, my interest piqued.

Proulx is one of the best novelists and short story writers of the late 20th and into the 21st centuries. Her award-winning novel, The Shipping News and That Old Ace in the Hole are my favorite of her books. I always show my creative writing class a documentary about Ms Proulx writing Ace. It shows them the amount of research and hard, meticulous work that a novelist of Proulx’s stature puts into a new work of fiction. Her short stories, however, represent another whole aspect of her talent. I can honestly say, I have never read a Proulx short story that I did not like.

In Bird Cloud, Proulx tells the story of her family from its French-Canadian roots through to New England. She describes several places she lives, but none of them match her ideal home for reading, research, and writing. She searches Wyoming -- three collections of her short stories are subtitled “Wyoming Stories” – for a perfect plot of land, secluded, but near enough to civilization for food and supplies. She wanted a place where she could have rooms that looked out over the vast prairies nearby and mountains in the distance. Then she launches into a history of the area she selected dating back to the earliest inhabitants several thousand years ago, through to the Native Americans pushed out by white settlers in the 19th century. Then the search began for an architect and construction crew. The delays and pitfalls were frustrating and costly.

Once the house is finished, she takes a detailed inventory of the flora and fauna surrounding her. She has particular interest in birds, and spots several pairs of eagles – bald and golden – along with falcons, hawks, ravens, owls, and myriad song birds. Here, she describes one unique encounter.

“It was a big thrill when I saw a white-faced ibis near the front gate where there was irrigation overflow. The ibis stayed around for weeks. A few days after this sighting I was sitting near the river and saw two herons fly to the bald eagles’ favorite fishing tree. They were too small to be blue herons, and did not really look like little blues. A few minutes with the heron book cleared up the mystery; they were tricolored herons, the first I had ever seen. By the end of the month, American goldfinches were shooting around like tossed gold pieces despite another cold spell” (220).

This conversational style gives her prose a smooth and seamless fluidity that paints a digital-quality image in the mind of the reader. She welcomes me into her world as a expected visitor. This memoir will appeal to those interested in wildlife, because her keen eye for observation reveals much about the fauna of a wilderness area most of us would never visit.

The house is complicated in its orientation, layout, and construction, and I can imagine such a wonderful hideaway for a writer and reader. If you have never read Proulx, start with one of her collections of stories and get a feel for her exquisite view of nature – flora, fauna, and human. 5 stars

--Chiron, 3/8/11

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