Them Old Cowboy Songs by Annie Proulx, 2008
The magic trick:
Putting the focus on the setting by lessening the reader’s intimacy with the characters and narrative details
Maybe it’s the setting – old, untouched Wyoming – that makes this story feel so big. But no, it’s more than that. The scope is cinematic. We get the biographies of Archie and Rose from birth to death. We meet many, many characters and get their backstories too. There’s a lot to take in here. Maybe even a novel’s worth.
It not being a novel, though, obviously compromises must be made. Big events happen in the narrative quickly at the cost of quiet moments where the reader and characters both can reflect on the action’s consequences. Character development falls by the way side here too. And the sheer number of characters waters down the intimacy the reader feels with each.
None of these are bad things, though they sound like criticisms. In fact, they are the magic trick. Because we meet so many characters, and because the action moves so fast, and because our intimacy with the story feels slight, the story’s theme emerges. The west was a tough go. Times were hard. Your odds were long. “Them Old Cowboy Songs” is less about a specific couple’s experience and more about a place. And that’s quite a trick on Proulx’s part.
There is no happiness like that of a young couple in a little house they have built themselves in a place of beauty and solitude. Archie had hammered together a table with sapling legs and two benches. At the evening meal, their faces lit by the yellow shine of the coal-oil lamp whose light threw wild shadows on the ceiling, their world seemed in order.
Rose was not pretty, but warmhearted and quick to laugh. She had grown up at the Jackrabbit stage station, the daughter of kettle-bellied Sundown Mealor, who dreamed of plunging steeds but because of his bottle habit drove a freight wagon. The station was on a north-south trail that connected hardscrabble ranches with the blowout railroad town of Rawlins after the Union Pacific line went through. Rose’s mother was gray with some wasting disease that kept her to her bed, sinking slowly out of life. She wept over Rose’s early marriage at barely fourteen but gave her a family treasure, a large silver spoon that had come across the Atlantic.
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