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"The days were too short for complete happiness."
on January 3, 2011
It is common for a reader who enters an Annie Proulx novel or short story to find that it grows on you page by page, layer by layer, as her sure carpentry builds a fine and strong effect. That was my experience with the non-fiction "Bird Cloud." If in her best fiction Proulx carpenters untold stories into life, this new work finds Proulx retelling old stories, resurfacing tales of history, geology, geography, climate, biology. Her evident pleasure in doing so means that many readers will be pleased with the telling.
Take note of the book's cover, a photograph well-selected by Proulx herself, for it is a true harbinger of what the 234 pages inside will bring. It is not a mistake that you cannot see the house whose three-year construction (2004-2006) some publicity material and some reviews mistakenly suggest is the main subject of the book. You are right to imagine the sky and the rangeland extending to the horizon hold multitudes.
"Bird Cloud" is not a Wyoming version of "House," Tracy Kidder's 1985 book that meticulously recounted the planning, design and construction of a New England custom home. Proulx offers us no blueprints, no floor plans, no budget details, no additional photos. Yes, she parcels out a few practical "how-to's" and a selection of vignettes (mostly about construction snafus and disappointments), but the house-related material occupies less than half of the book's content.
The building is not where Proulx fixes her emotional energy. Her heart lies elsewhere: in side-tales about her family's genealogy; in stories of the "rapacity and venal grasping" of all too many of Wyoming's founders; in the terrible legacy of insults to the land, its game animals, its Indian inhabitants; in a child-like delight she takes in the "archeological possibilities" of her 640 acres; and in her experience of the raw power of nature at 7000 feet above sea level, where hurricane-force winds and isolation-inducing snowdrifts are routine. The book's emotional apogee is the final, and longest, chapter -- a narrative tracing an arc of 12 months through the lives of the site's abundant bird life. In these pages Proulx, an amateur as a birder but first-rate as a raconteur, unleashes a warm observational humor.
The book is vulnerable to two criticisms. One is that "Bird Cloud" lacks an overarching theme. It hosts lots of little stories but does not have a big story, and readers who demand a pointedly consistent narrative experience may be disappointed. Another criticism is that the book's subtitle -- "a Memoir" -- is misleading. That is true. This is not a "memoir" as that label is understood today, in our era of no-holds-barred confessional outpourings. Anyone expecting Proulx, a famously private author now in her eighth decade, to lay bare the intimacies of her personal diary, to expose her emotional core, or to explain, for example, how her three divorces have shaped the woman she is today, will come away empty-handed. Proulx is one author unlikely to appear on Oprah's couch.
If you see yourself as a potential reader of "Bird Cloud," consider first reading a rare and lengthy interview conducted at her Bird Cloud Ranch, published in the Spring 2009 issue of Paris Review. It is available for free online; just Google the three words, Paris Review Proulx. The interview is a useful companion piece, especially since "Bird Cloud" itself contains surprisingly little material about Proulx's writing habits.
A set of 24 color photos the property appear on the website of photographer Wayne Thom (Google the four words, Wayne Thom Bird Cloud). As of April, 2013, it appears the property is still available for purchase (Google "Bird Cloud Ranch" and Sale).