The Meadow, by James Galvin
Reviewed by Brad Rhoda
Before I moved to the foothills of Northern Colorado, I had imagined the West to be an amalgamation of images that have, for better or worse, perpetuated the Western Myth: saloon doors and crooked sheriffs, hookers hanging off of poles on hotel porches, horses bucking handsome riders, and throngs of hollow-eyed men wearing suspenders and wide-brimmed hats, their mustaches blanketing unsmiling mouths. These are the pictures I believed in as a boy growing up in the MidWest; these pictures were the truth of the Great Beyond. To me, the West was a perpetual motion picture, a setting for lives of endless action and excitement that ended with a ride into the sunset, if it ever ended.
I am not the only one who has carried this misconception into town. The false romance of the West baited most of the early settlers and trappers, and it still digs its claws into the hearts of Midwestern boys even today. James Galvin, in his beautifully crafted book The Meadow, contradicts this Western idyll and shares instead the stories of an isolated, self-reliant, and occasionally desperate people who inhabit a different West, a country whose moods and whims oppose popular representations. Galvin’s unsung West is not glamorous, not cartoonish or flamboyant. It is the Western experience without movie cameras, without damsels in distress, and without sympathy.
Set along the Colorado/Wyoming border, The Meadow follows a peculiar cast of men and women who are trying to create lives out in this sparse and lonely territory across the expanse of the 20th Century. These are stubborn characters, people whose commitment to Home requires patience, compromise, and oftentimes surrender. They are not merely products of their environment, but extensions of it. They wrestle with the land, fighting always against the incessant wind, heavy snow, and meager rainfall that characterizes the eastern foothills of The Rockies. Human relationships are tenuous but vital, as the burden of solitude reigns in this country, miles away from any store, post office, or city.
It is tempting to view this existence as enviable. In our literature, Americans have made heroes of our independent rebels and recluses. We subscribe to the fable that they are the lucky ones, the examples to emulate and worship for their boldness and drive. But this neo-Thoreauvian vision, always enticing to cooped-up modern Americans, often blinds us to the realities endured by the early pioneers. When viewed up close, the independence of many of Galvin’s people is burdensome, all of them at the mercy and whim of their adopted geography. There is death by suicide, by cancer, by exposure, by stupidity. This land is nonchalant, heedless of the desires and intentions of its inhabitants. Yet it draws them ever nearer as long as their endurance holds out. Sometimes it holds, other times it doesn’t.
An antidote to the struggles and tests of this hard environment is the solace of good work. The trades that are practiced by many of these characters all rely on a traditional knowledge, that is, a knowledge passed down by older generations through hands-on experience and tutelage, not through Books for Dummies or Wikipedia. The skills put to use by Galvin’s people make a modern reader pine for old men, for stories and help and wisdom from an earlier time. Lyle, the central character in the book, is a skilled carpenter, farmer, metalsmith, meteorologist, and handyman. With his hands, he builds his own house, his own lathe, his own wheelbarrow, his own tools. Lyle’s work seems to be a reaction against the capriciousness of the land, his skill and controlled craftsmanship defying the chaos of chance. By creating his own world of order with his hands, he concocts a convincing illusion of symmetry and sense in his world, no matter how much the natural evidence around him speaks to the contrary.
It would be misleading to say that there is a specific and traceable plot in The Meadow. Reading this book is more like browsing through an old photo album, viewing scenes of familiar people, all wearing faces that seem to defy time. The scenes are disparate from each other and have their own individual import, but their true and final reward culminates when each photograph is taken in together with the others.
Galvin, a poet by trade, treats these scenes with detachment while still staying intimate with the people and with the land. Refreshingly, there is no didactic preaching about the dying of the West or the loss of the old ways of life. This land of no forgiveness is not portrayed any differently than it really is; its uniqueness is in its scarcity and its nakedness. The saccharine language of many other Western writers, desperate to canonize their respective landscapes by using myopic and specious claims, is replaced with an honest and straightforward narration that reflects the spirit of the people Galvin is writing about.
There is love at work here. Love of a place, of a time, and of a people. To call The Meadow an elegy feels too discouraging, too defeating. This is a book of weather and atmospheres, of dreams born and dashed and born again. It is a book of personal history and geographical history, an homage to an uncommon people from whom we can learn much in this busier, louder age. It is a slow book, simultaneously serene and heartbreaking, and it derives its quiet power from this tension. James Galvin has given us an uncommon gift with The Meadow, a gift that hopefully will contribute to the new mythology of a changing West.
Brad Rhoda was born and raised in Michigan and then left with no hard feelings. He now lives and writes in Fort Collins, Colorado, because it is there that he found answers to questions. For the past eight years, he has worked on a farm that uses an agricultural context to help bring healing and health to men struggling with addiction and homelessness. He believes that the reconciliation of farming and conservation will dictate the future direction of the arid West, and much of his work is driven by the hope in that possibility and efforts to expand upon that conversation. He is grateful to live with his wife, daughter, and their good fat dog.