Off the Shelf: This Is Not the Ivy League by Mary Clearman Blew

Blew Read the beginning of Chapter 1 from This Is Not the Ivy League: A Memoir by Mary Clearman Blew:

"In the spring of 1944 my mother and father borrowed more money than they had ever seen and purchased the old home ranch on Spring Creek, in central Montana, that had been my great-grandfather’s 1882 homestead. My father would be thirty-one in a few weeks, my mother had just turned thirty. I was four years old, my sister a toddler of eighteen months. We had been living on an alkali ranch in the sagebrush, down on the Judith River, and the move meant hay meadows and fresh water and good grazing for the cattle on the slopes of the mountains that overlooked the creek drainage, together with all the family associations with place, which even in 1944 were becoming emblematic. My great-grandfather had been one of the earliest homesteaders in central Montana, and it seemed that every shale hill and coulee, bend of the creek or grove of cottonwood trees, had its name and its position in the landscape of the family narrative.

Nearly seventy years later, I look back on that time and think how heartbreakingly young my mother and father were in 1944, with their two small daughters and their debt and their plans to deepen their roots on land where gnarled posts had been set and barbed wire strung on line fences by my great-grandfather and his sons, and where peonies and hollyhocks planted by my great-grandmother still bloomed every summer around the steps of the log ranch house where my father had been born. My parents dreamed of building up their herd of grade Hereford cows and calves, of constructing a two-bedroom house with modern improvements like electricity and telephone service, of repairing the corrals and barns and fences and clearing the underbrush that would, as my father said, make the ranch a place again.

The life my parents dreamed on the Spring Creek ranch was sheltered from the rest of the world by mountain ranges and distances and the slow pace of news, which came by radio, provided that somebody had bought batteries for the radio and the batteries hadn’t run down. Or else the news came by a two- or three-day-old newspaper, delivered by the rural mail carrier, which had reported the Allied bombing of Europe and the liberation of France and the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the discovery of concentration camps, so far away that the ranch families of central Montana could keep their innocence.

Those ranch families had suffered, as did other Americans during World War II, from shortages and rationing. It was hard to get gasoline, hard to get tires, hard to find fresh meat and fresh eggs in the stores. But in 1944 most of those ranchers were putting up their hay with teams of horses and mowing machines and buck rakes and beaver slides, and they were planting gardens, as they always had done, and raising their own chickens and butchering their own meat. Most of them had never known the conveniences of electricity or refrigeration; they still pumped their water by hand and heated it on a wood stove. For bathing, a galvanized tub on the kitchen floor; for necessities, an outhouse. If they were lucky, they had a washing machine with a hand-turned agitator instead of a washboard and that same galvanized tub. Electricity? Not in the country, not until after the war. Telephones? My family hooked up to a party line in 1949. Television? Not until 1956.

Does it sound like a Wendell Berry dream? That self-contained little ranch, undefiled by technology, where everybody worked hard but everybody had enough to eat, where good grass grew in those hay meadows along the river, where cattle grazed all summer long on the slopes of the South Moccasin Mountains? Where entertainment, except for the huzzah and razzle-dazzle of county fair time, was conversation by lamplight around the supper table?"

Mary Clearman Blew is the author of the acclaimed essay collection All but the Waltz and the memoir Balsamroot. She is the editor of When Montana and I Were Young: A Memoir of a Frontier Childhood, available in a Bison Books edition. Her most recent novel, Jackalope Dreams, is also available in a Bison Books edition. She is a professor of English at the University of Idaho and has twice won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, once in fiction and once in nonfiction. She is also the winner of a Western Heritage Award and the Western Literature Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award.


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