3 stars. In the 1970s, Gretel Ehrlich went to Wyoming on assignment for work. After her partner died of cancer, she stayed as a ranch worker, finding comfort in the bleak landscapes, hard work of sheepherding, and tight-lipped but warm residents. The Solace of Open Spaces is a collection of her essays describing the land, people, and animals around her.
Ehrlich’s prose is very lyrical, and she has a good eye for detail. She describes the connections between land and people eloquently. The writing shows her command of language and description with moments of tenderness, humor, and erudition.
The weakness of this collection is that I feel like I’m looking at pretty postcards that are written to someone else. I can admire the picture and the writing, but I never connect with it. Ehrlich talks very little about herself or events that occur, so the vignettes felt flat to me. Given the title of the book and her situation, I perhaps expected something more moving on the personal level.
The Solace of Open Spaces seems, to me, more a book to admire than to enjoy.
4 stars. A lyrical, humble recounting of the author’s childhood on a dude ranch in Wyoming, Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction reads like a love letter to open spaces, horses, and freedom. His writing has evocative power to inspire longing for the mountain landscapes of his youth, and his honest and hardworking way of life. I especially enjoyed the gruff warmth and subtle humor of his father, which is frequently disguised with his acerbic tongue. Spragg’s childhood is by no means easy; in addition to the hard labor of ranch work, he faces the unforgiving environment and the consequences of bad choices. The harshness of his upbringing is offset by his moving prose and clear retelling of his emotions.
The book lost steam for me towards the end; the episodes from his adult life seemed to lack the emotional resonance and impact of his childhood. They were still well-told, but seemed to change the focus of the book away from the intense coming-of-age narrative that was so powerful.
An excellent autobiographical read, Where Rivers Change Direction combines raw emotion and a hardscrabble way of life in beautiful narration.