True to my word, I actually read a variety of nonfiction this week--an essay, a few chapters from an ongoing read and the first chapter of a new book. Taken in small bites, it seems to work much better for me. Essays are nice as they are usually not too long and you feel like you have been somewhere and learned something new perhaps. My current nonfiction read is a slim volume and I am trying to read one chapter every day, so hopefully I should finish it in about a week. And then something new that caught my eye and attention.
Gretel Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces is quite a slim book and as it is not a straightforward narrative as she had envisioned it rather what seems to be a series of linked essays, it reads quite easily in small chunks and I didn't lose the thread by having let it sit for a while. Now, however, I am well into it and quite enjoying myself. Since I hope to finish it soon I will write about it in a proper post later, but I will share a couple of excerpts now as her writing is wonderfully descriptive. I traveled to Wyoming as a child but have not been back since and do recall the wide open spaces, but I would love to return now. I think it is the least populous state but the people Ehrlich writes about surely make up in personality what they lack in number! The period she writes about is the late 1970s and early 1980s.
I love her prose. Especially at moments like this when she is describing one rancher's trailerhouse:
" . . . the trailer was set at an angle to the main and only paved street in a town so bland it might have been tipped on its side and all the life drained from it."
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Wyoming women, ranching women, are truly formidable. I think you have to be, to live a life so hard and challenging physically.
"One woman who ran a ranch by herself had trouble with a neighbor who let his cattle in on her pastures. She rode out one morning to confront him. When he laughed, she shot the hat off his head. He promptly gathered his steers and departed. 'When you want your hat back, it'll be hanging over my mantel,' she yelled as he loped away."
Indeed! Never mess with a woman who can shoot the hat off a man's head.
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The essay I read is from The Best American Essays 2013 edited by Cheryl Strayed. It was purely whim and chance that I pulled this particular year off the shelf. Surely there would be some essay in it that would be of interest. Flip through, read a few first paragraphs, study the table of contents. "The Highway of Lost Girls" by Vanessa Veselka caught my eye. It originally was published in GQ magazine.
"In the summer of 1985, somewhere near Martinsburg, Pennsylvania, the body of a young woman was pulled from a truck-stop dumpster. I had just hitched a ride and was sitting in a nearby truck waiting for the driver to pay for gas so we could leave."
What follows is a rather harrowing account of the author's experiences hitching rides in the mid-1980s when she was only fifteen or so. She had left home with a boyfriend, but the two soon split. It was easier to keep moving than to sleep on the streets--especially for a young woman alone like she was. She writes what she knows and it had an immediacy to it through her 'storytelling' style. As a matter of fact I had a hard time setting it down, which I had to do a few times over the course of yesterday when I read it.
She moves back and forth between her experiences as a young woman, to the present and to stories of what happened to other women hitchhikers. It was as much a sort of investigative piece as she looks back on the many women who had been murdered living this lifestyle (many of them prostitutes who plied their trade at and between truck stops) as a rumination on memory and recollection. More than twenty years had passed between one particular encounter and the writing of this essay. How much had really happened, as it was impressed in her memory, and how much had memory shaped reality differently?
Veselka took a ride from a man who was later jailed for a series of murders he committed. She was lucky as he merely 'sported' with her and didn't attempt to kill her. She moves so smoothly from her own experiences to the research she did later into the murders that occurred. How much actually happened as she thinks happened, and how much was mere impressions?
Hitching is a way of life that has, luckily, disappeared and you don't hear of serial killers preying on young women in the same way anymore. But Veselka has some interesting things to say about the women who were murdered and how easy it was for lawmakers and everyone else for that matter to simply overlook or not care about these young women. She writes about how hard it was for them to come forward and press charges against perpetrators, when most people assume they put themselves so carelessly into the situations.
"It seems our profound fascination with serial killers is matched only by an equally profound lack of interest in their victims."
It was a fascinating essay, well written and engrossing to read, though a little unsettling, too---in the way Joyce Carol Oates's Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been is unsettling. I contemplated Googling some of the names she mentions, but I think it's better to be content simply with her essay and not have too clear a picture in my mind of some of these people and the things that happened. What is sad is for some there was no justice and in some cases these women remain unnamed and no doubt largely forgotten. I will keep an eye out for more of Veselka's writing.
I like the randomness of choosing just one essay and not feeling as though I have to read each essay in a collection. So my randomness will continue. I already have something picked out for next week, though if I get sidetracked with something else that is okay, too.
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I have one more book I want to write about, but as this post has gotten a little too long already, I will split it into two. Besides, the other book I have picked is one I plan on working my way through slowly and writing about chapter by chapter or in groups of two chapters (as there are twenty). It is art related and I am quite excited about it. More about it tomorrow!