Breaking Clean

( 11 )


In this extraordinary literary debut third-generation homesteader Judy Blunt describes her hardscrabble life on the prairies of eastern Montana in prose as big and bold as the landscape.

On a ranch miles from nowhere, Judy Blunt grew up with cattle and snakes, outhouse and isolation, epic blizzards and devastating prairie fires. She also grew up with a set of rules and roles prescribed to her sex long before she was born, a chafing set of strictures she eventually had no choice ...

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In this extraordinary literary debut third-generation homesteader Judy Blunt describes her hardscrabble life on the prairies of eastern Montana in prose as big and bold as the landscape.

On a ranch miles from nowhere, Judy Blunt grew up with cattle and snakes, outhouse and isolation, epic blizzards and devastating prairie fires. She also grew up with a set of rules and roles prescribed to her sex long before she was born, a chafing set of strictures she eventually had no choice but to flee, taking along three children and leaving behind a confused husband and the only life she’d ever known. Gritty, lyrical, unsentimental and wise, Breaking Clean is at once informed by the myths of the West and powerful enough to break them down.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Already drawing comparisons to Frank McCourt, Judy Blunt has penned an astonishingly honest memoir, recounting her life on remote cattle and wheat ranches in the Big Sky country of northeastern Montana. Played out against the sweeping panorama of the mythic American West, Breaking Clean is an extraordinary achievement: the true story of a woman's painful struggle to accept a secondary place in a man's world, and her bid to redefine herself as she comes to terms with the vast terrain she loves.

As a child, Judy watched as the strong women around her shouldered their share of heavy ranch work, only to return home to find more chores -- deemed "women's work" -- awaiting them. Finding a context for her growing feelings of isolation in the nascent women's liberation movement, which had begun to penetrate even small-town Montana, Judy began to explore this new spirit of individuality without a hint of self-pity, enduring the sniggering jokes often sent her way. Her sharply honed survival skills enabled her to endure bouts of loneliness, the seemingly endless succession of seasonal blizzards and prairie fires, and the sudden illness of her infant daughter, which finally fueled her ultimate decision to leave the only place she had ever known as "home."

With moving candor and rare purity of language, Judy Blunt triumphs -- and patiently reminds us of the myriad ways "women can be isolated by circumstances as well as by distance, and how our experiences, though geographically distinct, often translate into the same feelings." (Spring 2002 Selection)

From the Publisher
“Breathtaking. . . . Blunt's writing is visceral, yet never without humor and a raw, fierce honesty.” –The Chicago Tribune

“[An] astonishing literary debut, a dramatic and heartbreaking memoir . . . honed from difficult circumstances and crackling with energy long pent up . . . A fascinating, ferocious coming of age.” –Elle

“Unflinching. . . . A sense of mourning underlies [Blunt's] account, and she honors the land that she still loves by making us intimate with its smallest details.” –The New Yorker

“A beautifully written memoir that is a meditation on how land and her life will always be intertwined . . . Blunt's life has furnished her with the kind of strength most of us can only envy.” –The San Francisco Chronicle

“Staunch and unblinking, with sentences as strong and upright as well-tended fenceposts. A valuable addition to the literature of place and the literature of passage.” –The Washington Post

“Riveting . . . This masterful debut is utterly strange, suspenseful and surprising–a story whose threads connecting past and present are as transparent as cobwebs but as strong as barbed wire.” –Time Out New York

“In this assured and moving memoir, Blunt chronicles the wars-and-all realities of modern ranch life. . . . Remarkable.” –Outside

“Scarily good–so right on, so focused, so in-your-face that you have to take the book slowly to cushion the blow.” –National Geographic Adventure

Time Out New York
Riveting...In its precise, arresting descriptions of a working farm and its careful re-creation of how Blunt ultimately came to break free, this masterful debut is utterly strange, suspenseful and surprising-a story whose threads connecting past and present are as transparent as cobwebs but as strong as barbed wire. [Blunt's] balancing act between the strange and the familiar is impressive, the connections linking them perfectly gauged.
[An] astonishing literary debut, a dramatic and heartbreaking memoir...honed from difficult circumstances and crackling with energy long pent up...Having prevailed over a life of extreme isolation, Blunt manages to escape with poetry and feeling intact, singularly able to relive, with both aching honesty and occasional joy, a fascinating, ferocious coming of age.
The resilient Blunt's chronicle of the hardships, anguish, and stubborn determination of ranch life in wind-scoured Montana. As she looks back at her grueling, sometimes glorious, often terrifying experiences, she dissolves the romantic myths that shroud what is in fact a perpetually embattled way of life, one she both reveres and reviles. Hopefully, Blunt will keep honig her keen and poetic awareness, steely candor, and commanding storytelling skills and continue telling the true story of women in the West.
City slickers take heed: here's the real lowdown on the ranching life-from a woman's perspective. Judy Blunt's new memoir Breaking Clean debunks the romance surrounding the American West's most archetypal way of life.
National Geographic Adventure
Breaking Clean lifts you up out of your chair and sets you down on a ranch in the high plains of northeastern Montana. "Sets you down"-no, that's hardly adequate. Blunt slams you down. She writes the way a lion stalks, all might and attention; she grabs you by the back of your neck, shakes you up, makes you feel how she felt. Blunt is, to put it another way, scarily good-so right on, so focused, so in-your-face that you have to take the book slowly to cushion the blow....Blunt has a gift for vividness, a deep understanding of the unrelieved starkness of high-plains life and what it does to people, and a dauntless, relentless determination.....She writes without remorse, without flinching, striking matches off the scuffed soles of her feelings. When a writer can do that-make it real and make it matter-the world comes almost painfully alive.
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
No biographical sketch of Blunt can convey the depth of this literary achievement. Each of the 13 sections here stands on its own: substantial, powerful segments of writing organized around some larger theme. They read like something out of the late-19th century, particularly those years when only the novel could bridge the disjunctions between society and self. Inheriting the literary territory previously claimed by Ingalls Wilder and Cather, Blunt (who's just been named a Whiting Writer's Award recipient) builds on their accomplishments, yet marks American literature in her own way. To shoehorn this into mere category or classification is to insult its power. Profound, and profoundly moving.
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
While she doesn't shy away from writing about hard times, Blunt's attention to detail and dry humor make this debut emboldening. Her writing inspires respect for rural life and its "intimacy born of isolation, rather than blood relation." In this world without TV or books, with mail once a week at best, "a good story rose to the surface of conversation like heavy cream." Blunt's own story is so rich and genuine, readers will clean their plates and ask for seconds.
Publishers Weekly
Poet and essayist Blunt grew up on a Montana cattle ranch in the 1950s and 60s, where "indoor plumbing" meant a door on the privy and "running water" was a fast ranch wife with two buckets. A natural tomboy, happiest around animals, Blunt dreaded leaving childhood. The gender rules of ranch life were unyielding: women married and kept to their kitchens, and they didn't own property or make decisions about the ranch. When puberty came, she did her best to hide all evidence of her sex, wearing a big coat and even lancing her growing breasts, the way she'd drain a cow's abscessed jaw. After finishing high school in town she returned to the family ranch, only to find she had no place of value there. So she accepted the inevitable: marriage to a man from a neighboring ranch. For 12 years Blunt lived in self-denial sneaking cigarettes, creeping into the calving shed to do the work she knew better than any man and bearing three children who were all she could call her own when she finally decided to leave. While she doesn't shy away from writing about hard times, Blunt's attention to detail and dry humor make this debut emboldening rather than depressing (e.g., her observation that one-room schoolhouses weren't great, but they afforded unintentional exposure to lessons a few years in advance). Her writing inspires respect for rural life and its "intimacy born of isolation, rather than blood relation." In this world without TV or books, with mail once a week at best, "a good story rose to the surface of conversation like heavy cream." Blunt's own story is so rich and genuine, readers will clean their plates and ask for seconds. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Reflecting on a period from the late 1950s through the 1990s, Blunt recounts her life as she grew up on an isolated ranch an hour's drive south of Malta, Montana. Her family—she was one of five children—was not dysfunctional, but from an early age she struggled against the expectation that she would marry, have children, and become another ranch wife. While she loved her mother and admired her capabilities as a homemaker and horsewoman, she didn't want to become like her. She missed doing so by a hairbreadth. While Blunt escaped ranching through divorce and built for herself the life she craved, her life on the range of Montana inexorably shaped her. In appealing vignettes, told in vivid descriptive language, readers learn what that life was like. Ranching meant a close relationship with animals, the creatures her family raised lovingly and then sold or ate (chickens, pigs, cattle), the ones that served them in a kind of partnership (cats, dogs, milk cows, horses), and the fauna they encountered in the wild (skunks, rabbits, porcupines, rattlesnakes, deer). Blizzards could come up with little warning, and Blunt recalls one in particular that rattled her family's home, destroyed livestock, and nearly claimed the life of her father. There were few people within her purview—siblings and parents, neighbors, teachers—but those she related to with a fierce intimacy. Medical emergencies were complicated by Montana remoteness and long distances to care centers. Fire brought out exhausting community effort. School began in a one-room country school taught mostly by local women, but eventually Blunt attended high school in Malta and learned about what the world "outside" was like. Her family'sinterest in the outside world related mostly to what directly affected the ranchers—commodity prices, weather, local events—but news about the changes tearing at the social fabric in the 1960s and 1970s eventually made it to Blunt's part of the world, and some of it resonated powerfully with her. Readers will enjoy learning about ranch life through Blunt's stories, but they will also relish a glimpse into the inner life of a remarkable, talented woman. This book will be popular with readers of personal narrative and should show up in the bibliographies of women's studies and writing courses. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 303p. Map., Boardman
Library Journal
Blunt was raised on a ranch in Montana, miles from the nearest town, and attended a one-room school where she and her siblings made up the majority of the students. On the ranch, she learned how to handle the day-to-day work of farm life and to remain in a subservient role to men. Eventually, after marriage and children, she abandoned ranch life for college and began writing award-winning poetry. In this nonfiction debut, Blunt proves to be a skillful writer, using beautiful prose to describe how she learned to survive in what remains a man's world. Unfortunately, she does not discuss in enough detail how the ranch life shaped her and made her want to "break clean." Thus, though her narrative is enjoyable to read, it carries no social implications. Collections with material on farm life or women in nontraditional careers will want to consider this title. Otherwise, this is not a necessary purchase. Danna Bell-Russel, Library of Congress Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
In this award-winning memoir of growing up female on Montana ranches (shown on a map), Blunt traces several generations of her family, her early marriage and divorce, and "breaking clean" of myths of rugged individualism to find a place of her own where women can have a voice beyond being capable helpmates. Several chapters were originally published in modified form in literary journals. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
New Yorker
Born in 1954 to poor homesteaders on the Montana prairie, the author inherited a tradition of intense work and fierce isolation. She realized early that she was doomed to a supporting role on the family ranch; although she could work cattle and tractors, she writes, "I also learned to . . . reserve my opinion when the men were talking." This unflinching memoir is framed by Blunt's eventual decision to leave the rancher she had married at the age of eighteen and the only way of life she'd ever known. A sense of mourning underlies her account, and she honors the land that she still loves by making us intimate with its smallest details: after a thirty-six-hour blizzard, cows stand frozen, "eyes sealed tight under an inch of milky ice."
Kirkus Reviews
A memoir of growing up a cattleman's daughter in northeastern Montana in the 1950s and '60s.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375701306
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/7/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 418,335
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Judy Blunt spent more than thirty years on wheat and cattle ranches in northeastern Montana, before leaving in 1986 to attend the University of Montana. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is the recipient of a Jacob K. Javits Graduate Fellowship and a Montana Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship. Breaking Clean was awarded a 1997 PEN/Jerard Fund Award for a work in progress, as well as a 2001 Whiting Writers’ Award. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

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Read an Excerpt

I rarely go back to the ranch where I was born or to the neighboring land where I bore the fourth generation of a ranching family. My people live where hardpan and sagebrush flats give way to the Missouri River Breaks, a country so harsh and wild and distant that it must grow its own replacements, as it grows its own food, or it will die. Hereford cattle grow slick and mean foraging along the cutbanks for greasewood shoots and buffalo grass. Town lies an hour or more north over gumbo roads. Our town was Malta, population 2,500, county seat of Phillips County, Montana, and the largest settlement for nearly one hundred miles in any direction.

“Get tough,” my father snapped as I dragged my feet at the edge of a two-acre potato field. He gave me a gunnysack and started me down the rows pulling the tough fanweed that towered over the potato plants. I was learning then the necessary lessons of weeds and seeds and blisters. My favorite story as a child was of how I fainted in the garden when I was eight. My mother had to pry my fingers from around the handle of the hoe, she said, and she also said I was stupid not to wear a hat in the sun. But she was proud. My granddad hooted with glee when he heard about it.

“She’s a hell of a little worker,” he said, shaking his head. I was a hell of a little worker from that day forward, and I learned to wear a hat.

I am sometimes amazed at my own children, their outrage if they are required to do the dishes twice in one week, their tender self-absorption with minor bumps and bruises. As a mom, I’ve had to teach myself to croon over thorn scratches, admire bloody baby teeth and sponge the dirt from scraped shins. But in my mind, my mother’s voice and that of her mother still compete for expression. “Oh for Christ’s sake, you aren’t hurt!” they’re saying, and for a moment I struggle. For a moment I want to tell this new generation about my little brother calmly spitting out a palm full of tooth chips and wading back in to grab the biggest calf in the branding pen. I want to tell them how tough I was, falling asleep at the table with hands too sore to hold a fork, or about their grandmother, who cut off three fingers on the blades of a mower and finished the job before she came in to get help. For a moment I’m terrified I’ll slip and tell them to get tough.

Like my parents and grandparents, I was born and trained to live there. I could rope and ride and jockey a John Deere as well as my brothers, but being female, I also learned to bake bread and can vegetables and reserve my opinion when the men were talking. When a bachelor neighbor began courting me when I was fifteen, my parents were proud and hopeful. Though he was twelve years older than I was, his other numbers were very promising. He and his father ran five hundred cow-calf pairs and five hundred head of yearlings on 36,000 acres of range.

After supper one spring evening, my mother and I stood in the kitchen. She held her back stiff as her hands shot like pistons into the mound of bread dough on the counter. I stood tough beside her. On the porch, John had presented my father with a bottle of whiskey and was asking Dad’s permission to marry me. I wanted her to grab my cold hand and tell me how to run. I wanted her to smooth the crumpled letter from the garbage can and read the praise of my high school principal. I wanted her to tell me what I could be.

She rounded the bread neatly and efficiently and began smoothing lard over the top, intent on her fingers as they tidied the loaves.

“He’s a good man,” she said finally.

In the seventh grade, my daughter caught up with the culture shock and completed her transition from horse to bicycle, from boot-cut Levi’s to acid-washed jeans. She delighted me with her discoveries. Knowing little of slumber parties, roller skates or packs of giggling girls, sometimes I was more her peer than her parent. She wrote, too, long sentimental stories about lost puppies that found homes and loving two-parent families with adventurous daughters. Her characters were usually right back where they started, rescued and happy, by the end of the story. She’d begun watching television.

“Do you hate Daddy?” she asked once, from the depths of a divorced child’s sadness.

“Your daddy,” I replied, “is a good man.”

• *

In the manner of good ranchmen, my father and John squatted on their haunches on the porch facing each other. The whiskey bottle rested on the floor between them. John’s good white shirt was buttoned painfully around his neck. Dad had pushed his Stetson back, and a white band of skin glowed above his dark face, smooth and strangely delicate. When I moved to the doorway, their conversation was shifting from weather and cattle to marriage. As Dad tilted back heavily on one heel to drink from the neck of the bottle, John looked down and began to plot our life with one finger in the dust on the floor.

“I been meaning to stop by . . . ,” John said to the toe of his boot. He looked up to catch Dad’s eye. Dad nodded and looked away.

“You figured a spot yet?” He spoke deliberately, weighing each word. Like all the big ranches out there, John’s place had been pieced together from old homesteads and small farms turned back to grass.

“Morgan place has good buildings,” John replied, holding Dad’s gaze for a moment. He shifted the bottle to his lips and passed it back to Dad.

“Fair grass on the north end, but the meadows need work,” Dad challenged. John shifted slightly to the left, glancing to the west through the screen door. The setting sun was balanced on the blue tips of the pines in the distance. He worked at the stiffness of his collar, leaving gray smudges of dust along his throat. Settling back, he spoke with a touch of defiance.

“If a person worked it right . . .” Then his eyes found his boots again. He held his head rigid, waiting.

Dad smoothed one hand along his jaw as if in deep thought, and the two men squatted silently for several minutes. Then Dad drew a long breath and blew it out.

“Old Morgan used to get three cuttings in a rain year,” he said at last. John’s head rose and he met my father’s steady look.

“A person might make a go of it,” John agreed softly. Dad’s shoulders lifted slightly and dropped in mock defeat. He placed a hand on each knee and pushed himself up, John rising beside him, and they shook hands, grinning. Twisting suddenly, Dad reached down and grabbed the whiskey. He held it high in a toast, then leaned forward and tapped John’s chest with the neck of the bottle.

“And you, you cocky sonofabitch! Don’t you try planting anything too early, understand?” They were still laughing when they entered the kitchen.

I talk to my father twice a year now, on Christmas and Father’s Day. We talk about the yearling weights and the rain, or the lack of rain. When I moved away from our community, my parents lost a daughter, but they will have John forever, as a neighbor, a friend. He is closer to them in spirit than I am in blood, and shares their bewilderment and anger at my rejection of their way of life. As the ultimate betrayal, I have taken John’s sons, interrupting the perfect rites of passage. The move was hardest on the boys, for here they were only boys. At the ranch they were men-in-training, and they mourned this loss of prestige.

“I used to drive tractor for my dad,” the elder son once told his friends, and they scoffed. “You’re only eleven years old,” they laughed, and he was frustrated to bitter tears. He would go back to the ranch, that one. He would have to. But he returned there an outsider, as his father knew he would. He did not stay. The first son of the clan to cross the county line and survive found it easier to leave a second time, when he had to. Had he chosen to spend his life there, he would have had memories of symphonies and tennis shoes and basketball. When he marries and has children, he will raise them knowing that, at least sometimes, cowboys do cry.

I stuck with the bargain sealed on my parents’ porch for more than twelve years, although my faith in martyrdom as a way of life dwindled. I collected children and nervous tics the way some of the women collected dress patterns and ceramic owls. It was hard to shine when all the good things had already been done. Dorothy crocheted tissue covers and made lampshades from Styrofoam egg cartons. Pearle looped thick, horrible rugs from rags and denim scraps. Helen gardened a half acre of land and raised two hundred turkeys in her spare time. And everyone attended the monthly meetings of the Near and Far Club to answer roll call with her favorite new recipe.

These were the successful ranchwomen who moved from barn to kitchen to field with patient, tireless steps. For nearly ten years, I kept up with the cycles of crops and seasons and moons, and I did it all well. I excelled. But in the end, I couldn’t sleep. I quit eating. It wasn’t enough.

I saved for three years and bought my typewriter from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. I typed the first line while the cardboard carton lay around it in pieces. I wrote in a cold sweat on long strips of freezer paper that emerged from the keys thick and rich with ink. At first I only wrote at night when the children and John slept, emptying myself onto the paper until I could lie down. Then I began writing during the day, when the men were working in the fields. The children ran brown and wild and happy. The garden gave birth and died with rotting produce fat under its vines. The community buzzed. Dorothy offered to teach me how to crochet.

A prescribed distance of beige plush separated us. On a TV monitor nearby, zigzag lines distorted our images. John’s face looked lean and hard. My face showed fear and exhaustion. The years were all there in black and white. Mike, our marriage counselor, stood behind the video camera adjusting the sound level. We were learning to communicate, John and I. We each held a sweaty slip of paper with a list of priority topics we had prepared for this day. Our job was to discuss them on camera. Next week we would watch our debate and learn what areas needed improvement. We talked by turns, neither allowed to interrupt the other, for three minutes on each topic.

John was indignant, bewildered by my topics. I, on the other hand, could have written his list myself. Somewhere in a dusty file drawer is a film of an emaciated, haggard woman hesitantly describing her needs and dreams to a tight-jawed man who twists his knuckles and shakes his head because he wants to interrupt her and he can’t. His expression shows that he doesn’t know this woman; she’s something he never bargained for. When it’s over, they are both shaking and glad to get away.

“John,” Mike once asked, “how often do you tell your wife that you love her?”

“Oh, I’ve told her that before,” he replied cautiously. I cut into the conversation from my corner of the ring.

“You only told me you loved me once, and that was the day we were married,” I said.

“Well,” John said, injured and defensive, “I never took it back, did I?”

The break, when it came, was so swift and clean that I sometimes dream I went walking in the coulee behind the ranch house and emerged on the far side of the mountains. It’s different here—not easier, but different. And it’s enough.

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Table of Contents

Breaking Clean 3
A Place of One's Own 11
Salvage 36
Church and State 61
Lessons in Silence 77
Fighting Fire 89
Ajax 110
The Year of the Horse 126
Learning Curves 148
The Reckoning 184
Learning the Ropes 217
Winter Kill 246
Night Shift 276
Afterword: Leaving Home 292
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Judy Blunt, author of Breaking Clean

Q: How did you come to write this book?

A: I wrote the title essay, Breaking Clean, in one evening as a classroom assignment when I was a second year journalism major at the University of Montana. It was for a literature class called Montana Writers, led by the passionate and energetic Professor William Bevis. As part of our mid-term project, he assigned us to “write your Montana experience” in four pages or less. As a thirty-something ex-ranchwife, third generation Montanan, my story was perhaps more difficult to capture in four typewritten pages than those of my classmates, most of whom were under twenty and could count the months of their “Montana experience” on their fingers. Still, I gave it a shot. Ever attentive to duty, I squeezed the first three decades of my life onto four pages--only by fudging the line spacing and margins did I make it fit--and in the process of compressing scenes, I accidentally wrote an essay. I turned it in, and went on with my journalism studies. A couple of weeks later, I felt exposed and a bit reluctant when Professor Bevis approached me in class and asked permission to read my essay aloud. He was kind but adamant, and finally I agreed.

What happened next changed my life. He read Breaking Clean to an auditorium full of students who didn’t know who I was, and for fifteen minutes I watched their faces as they absorbed my story, my words. My life. I listened as his voice paused, then broke, at the ending line, and he turned his back on his class to compose himself. For the first time, Ifelt the power of the written word from the other side, from the writer’s side. I spent the night awake, rethinking the epiphany and the uncertainty of that moment in Professor Bevis’ class. The next day I added an English/Creative Writing major to my Journalism major.

Q: You write so eloquently about the isolation of ranch life. How do you think this book will speak to other people, and specifically women, who experience similar feelings and situations?

A: In my first years at the University, I rarely spoke about my life on the ranch. The students around me were young, well-traveled, and if not sophisticated, at least worldly. I believed my experience was too far outside the norm to be understood by others. I knew a great deal about a very specific region, and almost nothing about the world surrounding it.

Only as I came to share stories with other women did I discover the universal threads that connect our experiences. I discovered that people experience the alone-ness we call isolation in inner cities, in suburbs and in small towns. Listening to others, I came to understand how little our setting affects how we feel about our lives. Physical distance from others simply creates a set of logistical problems--How do we get supplies? When do we need to get them? It's that other kind of distance, the emotional isolation, that matters most.

Q: What does your title, Breaking Clean, mean?

A: As I mentioned, Breaking Clean is the title of the first essay I wrote, a classroom assignment that required me to condense my thirty-some years of Montana experience into four pages. I titled the first draft, "Clean Break," which I thought reflected the sharp division between my old life and my new life, my childhood landscape and that of western Montana. But somewhere in the exhaustion beyond midnight, as I retyped a clean copy of the assignment to hand in, it came to me that the process was ongoing. I was still breaking clean. So I changed it. I am still breaking, not yet broken, clean.

Q: There are some very powerful scenes in Breaking Clean that show the difficult role of writing in your life--a smashed typewriter, a stock of novels left for the slower seasons. How did you come to find your voice as a writer? Has it been a natural emergence, or do you recall having made a decision to become a writer at some distinct point along the way?

A: I began writing poems and stories in grade school. I began listening to the sound of language, the lingo and the rhythm of stories long before then. And in the absence of television, I read. I did not read great literature or classics as a child, but I did read a great deal. My voice as a writer grew up with me, and has evolved over time. Writers, like fine wine, start out sort of green and sharp, and become more mellow as they age.

Q: Describe your relationship to the landscape of Montana--why does it carry such a pull and how has it influenced your voice as a writer?

A: My relationship to the landscape of Montana is visceral. My land defined my life for thirty years, and I find that it still defines my voice. It's hard to shake the dark humor, the inside jokes that are part of growing up at the mercy of harsh weather and hard soil. Living there is a defining process. As a writer, I often have to be reminded by outside readers to describe the landscape as I go. It is such an intimate part of my story that I take it for granted.

Insiders don't think of landscape in shapes or contours unless pushed to do so. We think of it by place name, or occasionally by an event that defines it--the creek crossing where we stuck the pickup that time or the reservoir that washed out in '77. I don't think of a long graceful series of sloping hills overlooking the hay meadows; I simply think: Pea Ridge.

Q: Your descriptions of growing up in Montana could almost be descriptions of a childhood in the dustbowl during the Depression years (without electricity, indoor plumbing, etc), decades before your time. Although you've left the ranch, is it your experience that this sort of "out of time" life is still a reality?

A: Life has evened out, even in the far reaches of the county. Today, my brother gets more television channels at the ranch with his satellite dish than I do in the middle of Missoula. Ranching folks have internet chat sites. The community as I knew it is gone.

Q: Would you say that the roles of women and men on today's ranches are still as set in tradition as they seem to be in this book?

A: My experience is a singular one. I am always careful to stress that my story does not generalize to other farming and ranching communities, or even to other women within my community. Factors such as the location of our ranch, the logistics of our road and the personal dynamic of our family ranch corporation made it impossible for me to work outside the home.

Money was tight and regular childcare was non-existent. More commonly, women on farms and ranches have choices I did not have--they can commute to jobs in town or hire childcare so they can be more involved in farm and ranch operation.

It's also important to remember that tradition often sports its own brand of wisdom. In isolated communities like ours, the division of labor along gender lines was more a matter of practicality than politics. The traditional model of ranch life, which has the man doing the outside work and the woman doing the inside work, is often the most efficient model, and with a few exceptions it sets husband and wife to those tasks each has been trained since childhood to accomplish.

When children enter the picture, the roles become still more defined--again, as a matter of common sense. Why would anyone send a nursing mother to the field while the father tended the child? Note this all hinges on what's good for the growth of the business, rather than what's good for the growth of the individual. The setting aside of individual needs for the good of the whole is still a required mindset. What's “good for the whole” in the long run is a subject of some debate.

Q: What is life like for you now and do you ever miss life on the ranch?

A: I am patient in my pursuit of a good life. Of the ranch, I miss the smell of the prairie in early morning, sagebrush after a rain. I miss calving heifers in spring. I miss having my own dirt to dig in, seeds to plant. I miss the sound of chickens visiting quietly in the shade of the shop on a hot day. I miss the solitude--but I left because of the isolation. In other words, I miss the place, but I don't miss the life.

Q: What do you feel are the most pressing issues that face rural communities today?

A: Economics, certainly. The depressed markets, encroachment of imported agricultural products, complexity of various state and federal programs and regulations, the enormous increase in the cost of operation. All this leads to depopulation, which leads to the closure of schools and businesses and community centers, and results in a community with few incentives for young families or couples starting out. Most youngsters go to college and never come back to live. Young men returning to their fathers’ ranches have a difficult time finding a woman who's willing to take up the burden of being a full time ranch wife. The population of eastern Montana is both shrinking and aging at an alarming rate. Elder care is about the only growth industry in sight. It's as though this marginally productive region is slowly correcting the error of the past century by shaking off excess people.

Q: When you grew up, children were not boys and girls but men and women in training. Your children are the first generation in four not raised on the ranch. How has watching them grow up changed your understanding of your own childhood?

A: At years I considered from my childhood to be landmark, I was continually surprised by how young they were. As each turned thirteen, for instance, I would try to imagine them moving out and starting high school in another town. When my daughter turned fifteen, I tried to imagine how I might react if she brought home a 27-year-old boyfriend. In allowing them some version of a childhood, I was able to resurrect part of what I never had. I belly-laughed at their jokes, wondered at their talents, admired their courage, respected most of their decisions, loved them as deep as it goes, unflinchingly. In return, they took my Mistake-A-Day method of parenting in solid stride. What a gift they are. But like me, a significant part of who they are becoming is rooted in the eastern Montana ranch community we left. They have had the advantage of summers and holidays on their father's ranch among the cousins and grandparents and neighbors who make up their extended family. They've made hay and gathered cattle, spent some time at the rural school before it closed. They're not quite city kids, not quite country kids.

Q: You have been a ranch wife, a reporter, a cook, a salad bar designer, house painter, hardwood floor sander, professor, single mother. When have you found time and energy to write and what advice could you give to other aspiring writers?

A: I have not often found time to write. I've come to despise the myth of the writer who composes a best seller on café napkins during the thirty-minute lunch break of his second job. I know few serious writers who don't require sustained periods of writing time in order to focus and stay focused on a project. Earning a living can get in the way of writing, unless they're one and the same. My book was written over the course of ten years in a frustrating jumble of stolen hours and fragmented weeks. Some years when I was working six or seven days a week and running a household for three kids, I didn't write at all. I had nothing left to spend. Other times, I managed to complete an essay by working from four a.m. until I had to stop to get ready for school or work.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Reading Group Guide


“Breathtaking. . . . Blunt’s writing is visceral, yet never without humor and a raw, fierce honesty.”
Chicago Tribune

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Judy Blunt’s Breaking Clean, a lyrical, painstakingly honest memoir about growing up on a Montana ranch. In writing about her family and the isolated community they call home, Blunt brings to life Montana’s glorious, wide-open spaces and the generosity of spirit that binds people together in times of need; but she also reveals the cruelties imposed by geography, distance, and weather, and by a society that remains, despite the strength and fortitude exhibited by generations of women, essentially a man’s world.

1. The first chapter of Breaking Clean offers a preview of Blunt’s story, touching on some of the major turning points in her life. In what ways do the descriptions of her mother [p. 5], the conversation between her father and John [pp. 6–7], and the account of the marriage counseling session [pp. 9–10] establish the framework for the autobiography as a whole? What insights does this chapter give you into the varied, often contradictory, emotions Blunt feels in telling her story? For example, in describing her impatience with her children, why does Blunt say, “For a moment I’m terrified I’ll slip and tell them to get tough” [p. 4]?

2. What does the account of Blunt’s family history [pp. 17–18] reveal about the values and ideals that shaped her character? What aspects of her family legacy are most apparent in Blunt?

3. Blunt’s description of the impact of the introduction of electricity to Phillips county in the late 1950s [pp. 25–28] offers an unusual perspective on what most of us think of as progress. How does it bring out the realities—both practical and philosophical—that set rural, isolated communities apart from mainstream America?

4. As ranchers and farmers, the Blunts and their neighbors are inextricably connected to cycles of the seasons and to the crops and cattle they raise. The devastating blizzard of 1964 [pp. 41–59] is a compelling instance of the negative impact of nature on their lives. How does Blunt use the storm to tell a larger story about the community? What lessons are implicit in her father’s reaction to the deaths of his cattle and how do they relate to Blunt’s description of his approach to ranching [p. 39]? How does the language and imagery she uses here and elsewhere in the book emphasize the intimacy between the ranchers and the land they live on?

5. Despite the isolation of her community, Blunt is exposed to situations that children anywhere might encounter in the course of growing up. How does Blunt bring to life both the personal and the more universal meanings of the unsettling afternoon she and her sister spend with their teacher [pp. 70–75] through her choice of detail and her tone?

6. In recounting her reactions to a Native American classmate, Blunt writes, “What I remember from that time is that, with all the inborn arrogance of a white child raised in a white man’s world, I thought well of myself for being kind to him. . . . There were so many things I knew without knowing why, things I learned as a child listening with half an ear to all that was said, and most intently to all that was not said” [pp. 84–85]. To what extent are “lessons of silence” an integral part of childhood?

7. Describing the onset of puberty, Blunt writes, “And when, in the inexorable process of time, my body betrayed me, my rage was terrible” [p. 97]. Why doesn’t she—or can’t she—turn to her mother for guidance and comfort during this difficult period?

8. “As a young ranch wife,” Blunt writes, “I wed my sixties-style feminism to a system of conflicting expectations and beliefs only slightly altered by a century of mute nobility. My brand of feminism celebrated strength through silence” [p. 154]. To what extent did Blunt succeed in melding the old-fashioned qualities of the “perfect” ranch wife with the ideals set forth by the feminist movement sweeping through the county in the 1960s? What impact did the circumstances of her life—her return to the community in which she grew up, her marriage to a man much older than she and the constant presence of her overbearing father-in-law—have on her ability to become an independent woman? How did her attachment to the land and her genuine admiration for the strong women in the community influence the life she created for herself and her family?

9. One of the things Blunt objects to most strenuously is that few women inherit the ranches and farms they grow up on. The rugged, independent rancher, however, was already disappearing when she was in high school and she acknowledges that “the place I grew up on had fallen under the wheels of big business—big land, big lease, big machine. Big debt” [p. 203]. Would Blunt have found a satisfactory place for herself as the owner of a twenty-first-century ranching business?

10. The contrast between the lives of men and women is a major theme of Breaking Clean. Early in the book, Blunt writes, “I could ride and jockey a John Deere as well as my brothers, but being female, I also learned to bake bread and can vegetables and reserve my opinions when the men were talking” [p. 4]. Was her childhood merely a preparation for becoming a ranch wife or did it help her develop qualities that would serve her well as an adult in general? In what ways did her childhood experiences and the traditions with which she grew up enhance her ability to make it on her own?

11. “Eventually I would come to understand that the rules and roles I fought were less about me than they were about my place, this piece of earth that I came to identify with as clearly as I did my family” [pp. 107–108]. To what extent was the environment Blunt grew up in shaped by a vision of the West that is deeply imbedded in American mythology? What particular elements or events in Blunt’s story belie the romantic image of cowboys and ranchers as a special breed, driven not by the profit motive but by “deeper, more soul-sustaining reasons, like freedom and autonomy” [p. 293]? Are men as well as women victims of the out-dated assumptions about life in the wide-open spaces of the West?

12. How would you characterize the tone of Breaking Clean? Are you sympathetic to Blunt’s point of view throughout? How successful is Blunt in relating the viewpoints of the people around her? Is Blunt’s admission that “although my memories are real, my interpretation of them is less trustworthy” [p. 33] equally applicable to all memoirs?

13. The memoirs of writers often reveal, either implicitly or explicitly, the forces that led them to become writers. What were the major influences on Blunt’s artistic development and her interest in storytelling? Did she need to exile herself from the world she grew up in to find her own voice?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2008

    Loved this book!

    This is a great book. I read it, couldn't put it down, and will definitely read it again sometime.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2007

    Gripping, I couldn't put it down.

    While not all the subject matter was universal, the storyteller pulls you in and you feel her story. Although read and re-read, if I pick it up again I still can't put it down until the story is played out.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2007

    What happened?????

    Sometimes this memoir was clipping along at a really interesting pace, and sometimes, it was just dragging. All in all, I was really disappointed in the book. One personal comment, I grew up on a ranch in Texas, and I am glad that we didn't experience the type winters described in this book. Brrrrr

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2006


    I was amazed that the woman in the book was not that much older than I am. I currently live in Montana and have heard that ranching is not all what the movies protray it to be. I didn't grow up here but I know Montana is not for everyone. But then if it was it wouldn't be the wonderful place that I love. The women that grow up on the ranches are amazing and knowledgeable. I will take cattle drives over traffic jams any day. I really enjoyed the book and couldn't put it down until I was done.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2003

    Breaking Clean

    I suppose being a former resident of the state, I have a love for books about Montana. This book by Judy Blunt along with the book, Not So Fast Sonny, are really interesting looks into the culture of Montana. If you think living in Montana is a dream, you might be right. But it could also be a nightmare. A very good book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2003

    Breaking Clean

    As someone who has always fantasized about a home on the range, I found this book enthralling. Finally, life behind the scenes on the homestead. What a wonderful job of painting this picture with words. Blunt is an amazing storyteller, and her use of the English language would seem to lend itself to either a followup or perhaps a title of historical fiction. I read this book, which is 300 pages, in just two days, because I literally could not put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2002

    Updated Information

    It should be understood here that the incident in this book where Judy Blunt's father-in-law smashed her typewriter was fabricated by her. She admitted to creating this story and future editions of the title will not contain the scene.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2002


    Judy Blunt does a fantastic job on her first outing. She paints a realistic portrait of the rugged life on Montana's Highline.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2002

    My 'Hard Life on a Montana Ranch' is better title.

    There are lots of beautiful descriptions, and even a few compelling stories, but in the end, there is no center to the book. Ostensibly this book is about a woman who grows up on a Montana ranch and finds the courage to ¿break clean¿ and become a writer. Indeed, she never tires of reminding us that this in her future. But in the end she never talks about how she came to decide to leave, what the motivating incident was or what she learned about herself and the world around her. Major incidents such as her father in law smashing her typewriter pass as a throw away with no comment on what that meant to her ¿ how she felt ¿ and why she stayed. Her discussion of her new life takes a short chapter in the end ¿ that¿s it. That is all we know about her ¿breaking clean.¿ It must have taken courage to leave but you would never know it. In actual fact the main gist of the book (easily four-fifths) is the day-to-day life on a Montana ranch. The chapters can be read in any order. The people in her book are cardboard. You can¿t tell her sisters and brothers apart. Her father, her father in law and her husband all seem to be the same person. Worse she writes about them with an utter lack of compassion and insight that borders on contempt. In summary, her book should not be titled ¿Breaking Clean¿ - because she never tells that story, but it should have been titled ¿My Hard Life on a Montana Ranch.¿ A less marketable title, but far more accurate.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2002

    a real cry baby

    this book sounds like a real 'cry baby' account of the way life has always, and will always be on the wide open spaces of Eastern Montana. Anyone who grew up in a simular situation could have easily told the same sad tale of woe. She 'should get a life'. We all grew up in the 'school of hard knocks';ONWARD AND UPWARD! A cleansing of soul for her; a nauseous read for me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2002

    Incredible story, incredibly told

    A wonderful book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the ranching traditions of the West. I lived on a dryland wheat and cattle ranch in eastern Montana for four years and Blunt's retelling of a blizzard brought tears to my eyes. She gets it all 'just right.'

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