Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Some Lives Are Harder Than Others

The Jump-Off Creek
by Molly Gloss

One of my favorite Nanci Griffith songs is the one that she claims to be her "personal best," titled "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go." It's a song that alludes to the truth that all people suffer but if we do what we can to eliminate hatred and prejudice between people it can do a lot to ease the world's suffering. I agree with Nanci that every life is hard and has pain in it, but my goodness after reading The Jump-Off Creek I am really glad that I was not born in the 1800s and homesteading in the West. Talk about a hard life.

The main character of The Jump-Off Creek, Lydia, is a widow from a terribly loveless marriage who so longs for independence and freedom that she sells everything she has and buys a poor piece of land in Oregon, determined to grow enough food to feed herself and to make a living raising cattle. Much of the book describes the backbreaking, grinding, never ending labor required to just scrape by. Lydia is a stiff and reserved person, but the reader cannot help but root for her because she has such grit.

Even more daunting than the work, though, is the crushing loneliness that all of the characters face. Lydia's few neighbors, each in their own way, is desperate for companionship and relationship and trying to make connections with someone. A neighbor who is a casual acquaintance actually proposes to Lydia, pretty much just because he wants to be with somebody, and she is the only single female for miles around. She rejects the offer, and both the rejection and the strain in the relationship that follows are painful. By contrast, there is one scene where Lydia receives a bundle of mail that had piled up because she so seldom can get to the nearest post office. Her joy in receiving 14 letters and two packages from family and friends is one of the few times that her fierce stoicism shows some cracks.

This is a short book, but not a fast read. There is a certain rhythm to it, and a lot of decriptions of the scenery and of Lydia's homestead. Given the isolation and lack of social skills of the characters, it is pretty short on dialogue. It is a book best taken slowly and enjoyed as a window into a very different time and circumstance. By the end, we witness the fragile connections that are made by these hardworking people, and share the few triumphs that they have over the land and the elements. We have a new appreciation for those who "went first", risking their physical and emotional well-being just to start a new life. We also gain an understanding of the ingrained need for contact with other humans and are grateful for the shelter that human beings inevitably take in one another.

Reverent Reader


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