Breaking Clean [Book Review]

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This is a memoir that will have you re-reading pages to check that your eyes aren’t tricking you. It’s a memoir that will cause your electricity bill to rise for a couple of nights as you read under lamplight until your eyes just can’t stay open any more. It’s a memoir that will captivate your senses, imagination, and awe as you read about Judy Blunt’s life.

The title of the memoir I’ve just made so many claims about is Breaking Clean. Judy Blunt, who now resides in Missoula, Montana, chronicles her upbringing as a third-generation homesteader on the harsh plains of eastern Montana.  Unimaginable snow storms with winds strong enough to make a house shriek, roads that Blunt describes as “gumbo” in texture surround her childhood home, and frequent, dangerous encounters with both animals and farm equipment make pocks in her like hail does a roof. Not only is Blunt shaped by these natural forces, but also by the codes that regulate life on the plains: the pressure on women to maintain homes, help out on the farm, and expect no credit for either, the strict code imposed to never question an elder, and the constant favoritism of males over females in regards to inheritance and perceived ability. Blunt shoulders these adversities (along with many others) throughout her upbringing and pummels her way through obstacles and self-doubt to determine what she truly wants in life.

The community that Blunt grows up in is small, set in tradition, and shaped by the land. Homesteaders in this part of Montana live in near-isolation. They rely on themselves to produce enough food to last through frigid winters. They rely on the men to tend to the cattle and the business. The women are expected to keep up with housework, canning, gardening, raising kids, cooking, and assist their husbands when they can. Each person who lives out on these plains works as hard as a human body can. This impeccable work ethic ingrained in Blunt is highlighted once she goes to high school. It is the norm for high-school students from the plains to pay room and board in order to live in town and go to school. On top of these adult responsibilities, adjusting to life in a city, living without parents, and succeeding in academics, Blunt picks up a job at a local diner where she is awarded a bonus on her paycheck because she works so hard. If this doesn’t demonstrate to you Blunt’s commitment to succeed and her unfailing trait of putting every ounce of herself into a task, I don’t know what does.

Parallel to the nature that surrounds these tough homesteaders, Blunt experiences periods of tragedy in her life, but also celebrates in harvest. She describes situations such as a massive wildfire racing toward her home, torrential downpours that make the roads nearly impassable when she needs to go to the hospital, snow storms that obliterate masses of cattle, and with them any hope of success for the year. She elaborates on her schooling experience in a one-room schoolhouse, reflects on the introduction of plumbing and electricity into her life, shares stories of how she kept herself entertained with her brothers and sisters where games included fire and facing bulls head to head. There are tender moments in the memoir: bonds formed with farm animals who had to be killed for the family to survive, intimate details of rage and disbelief as she physically transitions into a woman, feelings of isolation and loneliness from the perspective of Blunt as she craves any form of attention or acknowledgment from males in society, and the communication of a feeling of suffocation in a community where women were expected to remain in their places and complete massive amounts of work without any sign of weariness or grudge. The multitude of topics, situations, emotions, and syncretism between the actions of nature and the feelings of man make this memoir potent in its power to foster genuine emotion within the reader.

The memoir is written in a manner as raw and honest as the wind-blown prairie that the memories stem from. Blunt explores each facet of her upbringing, schooling, community, and marriage with as much curiosity as she does the ripples, dips, and dents of the vast land that she studies on horseback throughout her youth. Each startling description of a life characterized by determination, hard work, astounding obstacles, and the stifling traditions of the community is accompanied by subtle humor and an overwhelming beauty. The story is awe-inspiring, insightful, and a powerful tale of human struggle, and success in a place where it appears that little more than prairie-grass should be able to flourish. I highly recommend this book and commend Blunt not only for the incredible words between the covers, but also for her introspection, work ethic, and courage to follow an unpaved path towards the life that she needed.

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