‘My West: Personal Writings on the American West — Past, Present and Future’ by Patricia Nell Warren

I am delighted to say I thoroughly enjoyed Patricia Nell Warren’s My West (Wild Cat Press), a collection of previously published articles and essays that span more than three decades. Part memoir, part history and social commentary, this anthology is a nostalgic journey into the heart of Patricia Nell Warren’s America—her America, her West. She writes of Appaloosas, and long-horn cattle, the interstices of Native and immigrant cultures, and “the delight and danger” of chile peppers: “All varieties come from the genus Capsium” she writes, “along with corn, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados… and a dozen other food plants that were domesticated by First Nation peoples of Central and South America.”

The book is organized by topics, such as animals, history, gender, spirituality, and zest, with a capital Z. But these are more than simple narratives. For example, Warren writes about the Texas longhorns, but brings us to the back story, the history and Spanish roots of these elegant aurochs:

They tended to be lean, light-framed and narrow-bodied, with a high-set tail. Horn spreads were mostly not humongous—probably never exceeding 3 feet or so… they kept themselves fat on next to nothing, especially the sparse grazing typical of hot, dry Mediterranean regions, where cattle must graze like deer on a variety of plants and woody shrubs.

I appreciate these visual and dimensional descriptions not only for the details, but also because of the confidence and knowledge Warren projects and continues to do so, whether she is writing about the jewelry of artist Heyoehkah Merrifield (LOVE that name!), her father’s haying machine, the sexuality of Calamity Jane, or exploring, from her socio-economic-political position as a métis, or mixed-blood Montanan. Musing on the mysteries of the landscape of her childhood, remembering the “six or seven low mounds” which marked “a place where the tribes once stopped to pray when they traveled through the valley,” she confides in the reader:

So the wonderings took on an open-air blue-sky spiritual tinge. It was the beginning of hearing the faint far-off talkings of hidden history, of almost-lost human time and human doings, and stories that were as many as the stars I couldn’t see in the daytime. It was the start of learning how words on a printed page can be made to lie—of learning how unprovably accurate an unwritten tradition can be

For seventeen years, Patricia Nell Warren worked for Reader’s Digest as a book editor, and the skills learned in the halls of that conservative company honed Nell Warren’s keen sense of detail and observation. My West serves well to showcase her instinctive choices of what is woven into the piece, what is most important to focus on and include in the narratives, what holds our attention.

At times the folksiness set my teeth on edge (being wary of romanticizing and happy endings), but there is a reverence that comes through in Warren’s voice; a respect for the complexity of her history, her origins, her Heimat—her home. My West invites us to find the best easy chair in the house, and crack the binding. In doing so, we expand our understanding of our homes, our complexities, our no longer hidden histories, and that is what it’s all about.

My West
by Patricia Nell Warren
Wildcat Books
Paperback, 9781889135083, 422pp.
June 2011