‘The Western Home: Stories for Home on the Range’ by Catherine Cooper

Book Reviews

The Western Home coverReviewed by Brett Josef Grubisic

Though I’ve never met Catherine Cooper and know nothing about the actual genesis of The Western Home, while reading her inventively left-field debut I found myself imagining (with much creative license, I’ll hazard) the author drafting email queries for publishers and literary agents:

Dear _____,

Ten short stories (set primarily in the American west between 1872 and 1988) comprise The Western Home; these stories are all linked, directly and indirectly, to “Home on the Range,” the renowned nineteenth century folk song. The volume concludes with a footnoted scholarly essay similarly addressing “Home on the Range.”

I’m quite excited about this project and hope you share my enthusiasm. I look forward to your reply.

Best regards,

Discerning little commercial appeal and listening to their gut instinct bellow “What a risky, wrongheaded idea!,” these specialists (I imagine) eventually send pithy responses with keywords that include “unfortunately,” “due to,” “I’m afraid,” and “we are unable.”*

How very wrong these figments would have been.

The Western Home: Stories for Home on the Range is striking and clever, an enchanting and diverse collection of stories, yes, but also a fresh take on the possibilities inherent in the short story collection genre.

Cooper’s goals, no doubt as complicated as other lauded fictional engagements with history (like Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music and Natalee Caple’s In Calamity’s Wake), animate The Western Home. In the book’s end pages she explains some motivations. There’s personal:

Although I only knew the chorus, as I think most North Americans do, I felt a special connection to the song because my mother had always told me that it was the favourite song of her father, Ivor, who died when she was twelve.

And there’s intellectual:

The story of the song is told through the stories of the people who helped shape its destiny by writing, rewriting, singing, recording, claiming and disowning it. Just as these people adapted the song to reflect what was important to them, I have adapted their personal histories to tell the story of the song. This telling reflects my own projections and fantasies about the West and about the past—I believe that this is both fitting and, to a certain extent at least, inevitable.

And the essay, “From ‘No Place’ to Home: The Quest for a Western Home in Brewster Higley’s ‘Home on the Range,’” provides valuable historical context while educating readers who (like Cooper herself, once upon a time) possess little knowledge about the entangled origins and unique significance of the song. Cooper interprets that campfire singalong classic itself as evocative of “a deep and enduring ideal—that mythic space beyond the frontier where Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that the American character was forged.” It was a tantalizing and fantastical ideal, too, since for settlers quotidian “life was hard and the skies were often cloudy.”

The moody, atmospheric stories are delectable, if richly dark and shadowy (as in 1940s Hollywood: think Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice). They’d nestle comfortably on a shelf of literary depictions of the West and hardscrabble rural existence laden with American heavyweights like Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (not to mention works by Guy Vanderhaeghe, early Alice Munro, and Sinclair Ross).

The first and seventh stories, respectively, “1872, The Western Home” and “1872, Home on the Range,” provide twin portraits of aspiring poet Dr. Brewster Higley IV, a former Civil War surgeon who fled a lousy (and fourth) marriage for a damp gloomy dugout in Kansas. A third-person account of middle-aged Higley’s days of regret and longing, the opening story highlights his emergency severing of a settler’s leg with a scalpel (sans anesthetic) and offers a memorable counterpoint to the man’s Romantic yearnings for extracting sublime beauty from a harsh environment. Slightly longer than a page, the latter story captures the man, pensive and troubled by “dark thoughts” on an evening he attempts to transcribe those thoughts. “I hold them there—the women and the lines and the longing—as I begin to write,” he narrates, and produces (perhaps) his poem of longing called “Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam,” and evoking a mythic era, since by 1872 buffalo no longer roamed in Kansas.

Sly and gently humorous near-cinematic treats, “1908, Seeing the Elephant” and “1935, Report of Samuel Moanfeldt, on his Investigation” retell the (published) efforts of real-life easterners trekking west to record folk songs and trace the verifiable origins of “Home on the Range.” “Elephant” (the title refers to a Westerner idiom for a life-altering experience), describes the eye-opening wanderings of John, a Harvard professor with an Edison recording device who visits seedy saloons in northern Texas and asks locals to sing folk songs. Based on a report of the same name, Cooper’s “old and sentimental” version of Moanfeldt tells a revised version: “Then I had the facts,” he writes, “now I have the feelings.” The story involves his lengthy journey to the heartland of one-cart towns to track down the true birthplace of the song. (As for why, Cooper’s narrator lets us know that Mr. and Mrs William Goodwin of Tempe, Arizona, “a pair of feckless cheats and liars,” had claimed copyright and undertaken a lawsuit about illegal usage of ‘their’ song). In “1947, Here in the Grass We Will Lie,” an interview between Homer Croy, who visits Brewster Higley’s son and family, is hampered by the old man’s seeming dementia.

A tasty slice of Western gothic with a few morsels of murder ballad added for good measure, “1890, The Solomon Vale” describes Alphonse, a California-bound drifter (with a guitar and the “sweetest voice anyone had ever heard”), who is beaten for a theft he didn’t commit and exacts brutal revenge in turn. Set in Arizona, “1928, Medicine Song” follows the days of a young woman who falls for and marries a quixotic charmer and part-time grifter who plans on a singing career. In the case of both stories ‘the range’ remains tough and unforgiving, a crucible of Social Darwinism rather than a tight community of quilting circles and quaint hoedowns.

Attractive yet disturbing, “1956, Sugar Arts,” “1972, The Rusts,” and “1988, Nuclear Heartland” seem tangentially related to Brewster Higley’s masterpiece. They’re more drawn to surveying what ‘home on the range’ looks like closer to our own era. “Nuclear,” for instance, recounts a parent-child trip from Souris, Manitoba to Greene, North Dakota. Surly, shy, and “furious beyond all reason” Ange (who, at fourteen, is struggling with the ignobility of large breasts and metal underwires) merely puts up with her estranged father. The trip, designed to remedy what Ange’s activist dad sees as her lack of interest in the world, moves quickly into acrimony and violence (and then, unexpectedly, love) as he insistently lists alarming facts about military silos and their ICBMs and she silently recollects her hopeful experiments with sex (which “had proven, like everything else, to be a miserable lie”) as they drive by fields and roadside motels.

*Quotations copied from the review writer’s own archive of rejection emails.

Pedlar | 250 pages |  $22.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1897141601

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Brett Josef Grubisic

Brett Josef Grubisic works at the University of British Columbia’s Department of English. His second novel, This Location of Unknown Possibilities, and fourth editing project, Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature, were published in spring 2014.