Bound Like Grass: A Memoir from the Western High Plains
By Ruth McLaughlin
University of Oklahoma Press, 184 pages,
In her tough and moving memoir Bound Like Grass, Ruth McLaughlin records her family’s history of farming wheat and cattle in Culbertson, Montana, near the North Dakota border. This book serves as an elegy and a monument—without it, there would be no remaining sign of the family’s Montana existence, and few, if anyone, would remember McLaughlin’s two deceased sisters. McLaughlin’s grandparents homesteaded in eastern Montana, her parents continued farming in a mode of spectacular frugality and grim defeat, and McLaughlin and her three siblings grew up there in the ’50s and ’60s, only to put as much ground between them and Culbertson as possible.
McLaughlin’s single surviving sibling, Dwight, headed to California the first chance he got, but Ruth, who now lives in Great Falls, was more bound to the land, visiting regularly even after her parents died, until someone bought the property and burned down all the structures, effectively erasing all signs that their family had ever been there. As McLaughlin puts it, “Our family had a ninety-seven-year fling here; now we are gone. Ten have been left behind, including six children, planted in two cemeteries.”
You may think that you’ve heard this story before, but you haven’t, not the way McLaughlin tells it, with crystalline recall of sensory details and startling revelations in every chapter. She writes in clear, sharp prose with tremendous insight, and with such a degree of self-criticism that you wish you could pat her on the back and tell her she did the best anyone could as a daughter, granddaughter, and sister. Judy Blunt praised Bound Like Grass, and in its subject matter, unstinting honesty, and lack of sentimentality, McLaughlin’s book has much in common with Blunt’s remarkable 2002 memoir, Breaking Clean.
McLaughlin’s parents “clung to a Depression-era frugality. Neighbors heated with propane; our parents stayed with coal, even cooking on a coal range.” Their fear of spending money and engaging with the larger world kept them and their children isolated. “My subdued parents,” McLaughlin writes, “who were adequate to each day’s chores but without ambition, and who adequately fed and clothed their children, but little more—were a generation trapped between adventurous parents and discontented children. Their generation’s job was to hold on to the idea that hail-battered, drought-struck small farms could support a family. They awaited the next big experiment on the northern plains: the advent of large-scale farming.”
McLaughlin’s upbringing was hardscrabble in every way, devoid even of some of the perks of farm life, chiefly fresh food—instead of eating what they raised, her parents sold it to others. “Noon and night we ate what my glass-half-empty brother called peasant food: mashed potatoes, canned vegetables, and processed meat.” The parents didn’t show their children much affection or supervise them to the extent that other parents did. After he left home Dwight was ashamed to admit he “had never thrown a football or even held one.” McLaughlin’s parents wouldn’t spend money on a haircut, so she cut her own hair with a razor, ending up with a set of slashed fingers.
Their parents were not bad people, just unequal to the task of farming in harsh conditions and raising two disabled daughters. McLaughlin’s childhood isolation was so complete, her early experience so limited, that in writing this memoir she has drawn on diaries, research, and doctors and psychologist’s reports to reconstruct what the members of her family were thinking and feeling.
The most moving sections of the book address McLaughlin’s older sister Rosemary and her younger sister Ginny. Rosemary was always odd, prone to bursts of anger, speaking in precise diction but unable to complete simple math problems. At school, boys taunted her relentlessly, and McLaughlin rebukes herself for never having intervened out of fear that she would also become a target. Through her research, McLaughlin learned that Rosemary suffered brain damage at birth. The psychologist reports McLaughlin unearthed are heartbreaking. One psychologist wrote of Rosemary, “She feels that her life has not been too meaningful up to this point…She stated that others do not like her because she is ‘different.'” Rosemary “is the most frustrated person I’ve ever met,’ her workshop counselor wrote in his evaluation.”
Isolated and frugal as they were, McLaughlin’s parents did not have Rosemary evaluated until she was an adult. McLaughlin shares her anger over their neglect of Rosemary’s profound needs: “I felt cheated: my sister had been stolen from me. Had we lived somewhere else—not hundreds of miles from specialized doctors and psychologists—and without boys’ bullying, teachers’ scoldings, and my parents’ blind neglect—might I have had that sister? ‘Few youngsters whom I have tested have been able to demonstrate learning ability in the area of general information that Rosemary has shown,’ the psychologist noted. ‘She has a very good chance of becoming a productive individual.'” Sadly, his prediction did not come true.
When McLaughlin was a teenager, her mother had a fourth child, Ginny. “I prayed that the baby wouldn’t have polio or be born dead,” McLaughlin writes. “I didn’t bother to pray against another Rosemary; I doubted there could be someone else like her. I wasn’t really worried about the baby. I thought that the misfortune of Rosemary would ward off more bad luck: God wouldn’t give us a second damaged child.” But Ginny is born with Down Syndrome in a time and place where there was nothing to do with such people other than keep them home in childhood and then send them away when they were adults. Ginny eventually leaves home for treatment: “I didn’t visit her but heard the news from Mother’s weekly letters: she’d eaten pizza and gone bowling and camping; she’d learned to tread water in a pool. None of which my parents had ever done.”
McLaughlin bookends Bound Like Grass with descriptions of the empty land on which her family lived out its dramas, the house burned away, the people now dead or scattered. But with Bound Like Grass McLaughlin has preserved these lives and this vanished lifestyle, stating eloquently through her memoir that although all traces of her family are now erased, they lived, farmed, and struggled on this land, and they were not nothing.
Ruth McLaughlin will read at Chapter One Books in Hamilton, Mont. on March 30.