“Nothing to Tell: Extraordinary Stories of Montana Ranch Women,” Donna Gray, Two Dot/Globe Pequot Press. $18.95.
By SHARIE PYKE - For The Outpost
In “Nothing to Tell,” Donna Gray has compiled and edited the oral histories of women ranch and farm pioneers, some born on the homestead, others coming out west as preschoolers on the emigrant trains or even in prairie schooners. Their memories are woven out of hardship, perseverance and resourcefulness, embroidered with family, neighbors and simple gatherings.
Ms. Gray’s ability to duplicate various dialects, as well as regional pronunciations, like “crick” for “creek,” adds color and strength to her transcriptions. She also chose women of varied backgrounds, from the college trained teachers to those who didn’t make the eighth grade. Many family names are familiar: Hart, Jeffers, Mehlhoff, Cosgriff.
But whatever their roots, these were no delicate parlor lilies, but rather strong women, proud of their ability to work alongside their men, able to stand the isolation. Milking a few cows often tied them to the homestead. Men drove to town, turning the butter, eggs and cream they’d produced into store-bought goods.
Some of the tales become repetitious. There’s only so much you can say about cooking on a wood stove or milking a cow. It was the personal anecdotes that kept me reading, as well as the acceptance of hardships few women would put up with now.
Out on the plains, until the settlers could dig an artesian well, potable water often had to be carted from a creek. Hard winters froze as many homesteaders out as the plagues of grasshoppers and dry summers.
All the memoirs were good, but I enjoyed memoir 12, Beatrice McIntyre Murray’s, the most.
Though she had little education, her words painted pictures. She, her husband, and son rode the rails out to Roy, 36 miles northeast of Lewistown, during the Dirty Thirties.
“And dry and hot!” she said. “Like livin’ in a desert. But we stayed. We didn’t have nuttin’ to leave on and nowhere to go.”
She never lived in a house with indoor plumbing, but managed, in her 80s, to rig up a shower of sorts. At age 88, she was still wrestling 80-pound bales of hay.
Why did she stay on, living out on the place alone? In her own words: “You gotta make yourself like it, make up your mind you’re goin’ to stick to it.” She died there in 2003 at age 97.
“Nothing to Tell” is a great summer vacation book, and one for those of us who love the bleak beauty of the high plains as well as the mountains. It’s one that you’ll savor and then want to share.