Memoir review by Marie Arana

Undone by a house of dreams

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Marie Arana
Sunday, January 23, 2011

Few contemporary Americans have written about place with as much precision and passion as Annie Proulx. She has summoned the wind-whipped harbors of Newfoundland in "The Shipping News," the squalid slums of New Orleans in "Accordion Crimes" and the harsh beauty of the American West in many a short story and novel about Wyoming. She has received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and just about every other honor the American literary establishment can bestow. Two of her works, including "Brokeback Mountain," have been made into Hollywood films. Surely she has earned the right - in this, her 75th year - to knock around her house awhile.

Proulx's highly idiosyncratic memoir, "Bird Cloud," is a rattling trunk of miscellanies. It starts as family history but jumps quickly to free-associations about dwelling places: Proulx's houses in particular; Wyoming habitats in general; Native American wigwams; sheep ranchers' acreage; and, while we're at it, the nesting habits of birds. It's a herky-jerky journey - some of it fascinating, much of it dizzyingly random - as eccentric and chaotic as a lost-and-found bin.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Indeed, anyone familiar with Wyoming (full disclosure: my grandfather's house outside Rawlins can't be more than a few miles from Proulx's) will revel in her close observations of the terrain and her quirky tour of its regional history. As she describes her hard-won demesne between cliff and river, the land comes bristling to life.

Proulx bought her first Wyoming house in Centennial in 1995 but soon discovered it was all wrong for her. Although she liked the town's funky main drag and its ratio of five bars to fewer than 100 people, the house itself became a frustration. The kitchen was cussedly small, the windows bizarrely situated, the driveway a forbidding barrier of ice. She longed to buy an attractive property and build a house that was more in line with her desires. She found that property one windy day, when she was driving west from Laramie and "the sky was filled with stretched-out laminar wave clouds." She was considering 640 acres of land just west of Saratoga, between Elk Mountain and the North Platte River. "I saw to the west, in the direction of the distant property, one cloud in the shape of an immense bird, the head and beak, the breast looming over the Rockies. I took it as a sign that I would get the property and thought Bird Cloud should be the new name."

And so it was. But Bird Cloud became a work of tough love: a war between writer and subject, between culture and nature - between human comforts and a relentlessly windswept plain. The house, designed by big-hat Colorado architect Harry Teague, promised everything on paper, but once the physical structure began to emerge, it was far more complicated than the "wooden poem" Proulx had imagined. As in any construction, there were unexpected obstacles: Laying the concrete foundation was delayed because the workers had to address a gaping hole in the Rawlins penitentiary; the kitchen floor, slated to be a handsome terracotta, took on the repellent color of raw liver; the window frames snapped during the night with such sudden, loud violence that Proulx feared someone was trying to break in. And always - always - there was the snow: so high, there was no budging it.

The building of Bird Cloud, in short, was an arduous undertaking, and Proulx chronicles it in detail. When the house was finally completed three years later, it had every amenity she could possibly want: solar panels, a Japanese soak tub, a window that faced her favorite tree, a vegetable garden, a kitchen floor the color of the sea. The view alone was reward enough. There were spring days when "the air was stitched with hundreds and hundreds of swallows." There were summers when golden eagles soared so high they dissolved into the cavernous blue. There were winter sunsets when the "hero sun came out for a quarter hour, then fell as though wounded." But by December, when the mercury fell to 15 degrees below zero, snow squealed underfoot, and the Wyoming roads grew impassable, Proulx's idyll became a prison. "I had to face the fact that no matter how much I loved the place it was not, and never could be, the final home of which I had dreamed."

Nevertheless, as in so many of Proulx's works, a reader will learn much along the way. There are painstaking descriptions - complete with sketches - of pinecones and arrowheads. With her, we learn how to read "the snow-angel wing prints" of an attacking eagle. We find that even very large cows can leap like hares if they need to. We're plied with eye-opening historical facts: about bonehead railroad companies, about Native American agriculture, about the Wyoming wool trade, about the meanness of American pioneers.

This can be as circuitous as a trail through Elk Mountain. But for all the roaming a reader will do here, for all the tricks that will be pulled from this random bin, there is no mistaking the final message: The real Wyoming has always been a hard land for hard people. Too hard even, as it turns out, for the indomitable Annie Proulx.

Bird Cloud, a quick search on the Internet will tell you, has been put up for sale. For $3.7 million, you, too, can sit in this singular creation, gaze out at the magnificent sunsets, watch eagles wheel against the bright blue empyrean, pit yourself against the bellowing 74-mile-an-hour winds, the arctic snows, the unforgiving landscape. You'd do well to consult Proulx's homeowner's manual before you do. It's a rare real estate testimonial.

Marie Arana, a writer at large for The Washington Post, is the author of "American Chica."

BIRD CLOUD


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