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book review

Healing an abused soul and a damaged world

A photo of Pam Houston as a child.Pam Houston

Pam Houston has one of the most engaging voices in contemporary American literature: direct, frank, and plainspoken. Reading her warm, reflective book about her beloved Colorado ranch is like sitting down with a friend — and after reading it, you understand why some of Houston’s are so devoted they would drive 10 hours through a blizzard to sit with her over a dying dog, or talk their way through roadblocks to rescue her horses from an oncoming wildfire. People do these things for her because she loves and trusts with a wholeheartedness she credits to the gentle steadiness of the woman who cared for her from the time she was two days old. Martha Washington, who served as a kind of nanny, gets a beautiful tribute in an essay called “Kindness” as the source of “every decent thing about me.” Houston’s childhood otherwise gave her few reasons to love or trust anyone.

Opening with an account of how she came to buy the ranch in 1993, shortly after the publication of her first book (“Cowboys Are My Weakness”), Houston then segues to the ghastly backstory that made a woman eager to find “a place I might be comfortable sitting still.” She bought the ranch not long after her mother died, only realizing the link between the two when she began to write about the ranch. “My mother loved me a lot,” she told a friend years later, “but she loved vodka more and it ruled her.” Apparently the vodka allowed Houston’s mother to ignore that her husband was beating and sexually abusing their daughter; he broke her femur when she was four, and at 17 she had “so much scar tissue in my cervix that I had to have hush-hush surgery.” I have omitted the most graphic details of her father’s abuse, but Houston relates them bluntly and without self-pity. She doesn’t forgive her parents, but from the vantage point of her late 50s, after decades of therapy, she is able to view their appalling actions simply as facts that shaped the person she has become.

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“The hypervigilance I learned in childhood serves me well on the ranch,” she writes. “My mind runs a series of potential calamities, and my actions, insomuch as they can, guard against them.” The book’s pulse beats in “Ranch Almanac,” a dozen vignettes of daily life in a remote, rugged place: buying hay, stacking wood, birthing lambs. Houston finds the endless vigilance and hard manual labor required to maintain a ranch “both mind-numbingly tedious and deeply satisfying . . . There is something so pleasingly pure about having a task to be accomplished and then accomplishing it. It is the exact opposite of writing.”

Yet her writing displays the same attention to particulars demanded by ranch chores. When Houston describes a thunderstorm at high altitude, or the 360-degree view from the top of Copper Mountain, or a first warm day in April, she doesn’t indulge in self-consciously poetic language. Her precise, straightforward prose catalogues vivid physical details that accumulate to give us “the thing itself” in its specific beauty. This is “the way I have written every single thing I have written,” she states. “[I]t is also the primary way I worship, the way I kneel down and kiss the earth.”

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The fragility of the magnificent natural world is a major theme in “Deep Creek,” most fully explored in “Diary of a Fire,” a gripping record of the 2013 West Fork Fire that consumed more than 90,000 acres and came within a mile of her ranch, and in “Of Spirit Bears, Humpbacks, Narwhals, Manatees and Mothers,” which visits some of the places on the planet most endangered by climate change. The emotional core of Houston’s narrative lies in the connections she makes between her desolate childhood and her drive “to love the damaged world and do what I can to help it thrive.”

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“The ranch mothers me,” she writes. “I had been born to two humans who wanted me not at all, but maybe that didn’t matter so much. I would always be a child of the wilderness.” Houston cherishes her friends but is content to spend much of her time alone on the ranch, surrounded by “the unconditional, unwavering uncommon, gale force love directed at me from my animals.” After an amicable split with a longtime boyfriend, as rooted in California as she was in Colorado, she met a national forest ranger “who has loved these particular mountains, this particular river valley, for even more years than I have . . . We are seeing what happens.” That tentative but hopeful conclusion encapsulates the spirit in which “Deep Creek” was written.

DEEP CREEK:

Finding Hope in the High Country

By Pam Houston

Norton, 288 pp., $25.95

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Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s 2018 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.