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“Women at Work” — Quite a Work

"Women at Work" is a fine press production from Red Butte Press

Ilustrations by Claire Taylor and Laura Decker

Women at Work.  It’s a book – sort of.  It’s a work… a fine-press publication combining prose, original artwork, history, and some gentle teasing around gender and labor in the American West. Getting things done, as they say.

Recently published by the Red Butte Press, a fine press operating under the umbrella of the Book Arts Program at the U’s J. Willard Marriott Library, Women at Work features three essays: an introductory piece by Matthew Basso and Andrew Farnsworth, “Everything’s Dangerous,” an essay about rodeo riders written by Ralph Powell for the Federal Writer’s Project Collection in 1941, and “Cooking by Scratch,” a response provided specifically for this publication by award-winning author Judy Blunt.

It’s Blunt’s writing that has me hooked. Associate professor of English (University of Montana, Missoula), and third generation rancher, Blunt has a gift for storytelling. A decade ago in her memoir Breaking Clean (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), Blunt laid down the truth about living (or should I say “surviving”?) on a remote Montana ranch in the 50’s. Calmly – and respectfully – Blunt reveals the brutality, poverty, and mild-mannered sexism that wove her ranching childhood. No more romanticized notions of the big sky, wide-open, wholesome western ranch life after reading this woman’s story.  

A 36-hour perfect storm hits the ranch in the dead of winter, freezing the family’s cattle in their tracks. For days Blunt and her siblings watch the slow, agonizing death of the cattle they’re able to move into the barn. They see their father’s remorse at not having put the animals out of their misery, and the family’s anxiety over how they will survive having lost nearly an entire year’s assets, as well as their actual meals.  

Half-way through Breaking Clean, in the chapter entitled “Ajax” Blunt remembers befriending a steer who became her beloved pet, and then losing him to the slaughter house. No word of comfort or discussion. “He was clean. It seems the least I could do, and I didn’t visit him again. In the course of the next couple of days, we ate the organ meats… In the end, only once did I pull away, mute and nearly choking on the lump in my throat. I could not, I would not eat his tongue.”

The clincher for me was Blunt, at the tender age of fifteen, overhearing her father make arrangements for her marriage to a nearby rancher’s son. Fifteen. The marriage couldn’t be denied, what with the coming together of acres and assets and Blunt’s fine-tuned domestic ranch skills mastered so early in life. Three children later, Blunt realizes she must leave that life. With her children in tow, she finds herself a job and an education in Missoula. Lucky for us, she pursued her natural gift of writing.  

We are confronted once again with Blunt’s no-nonsense eloquence in Women at Work. “I don’t remember any picky eaters where I came from, or family members who carried plates to another room or read a book at the table. Food was a serious business, and anything other than full attention was disrespectful to the cook. We came to the table hungry and ate what was there.”

Blunt is perplexed at her grandchildren’s appetite for fast-food chicken nuggets and electronic devices. There were gifts in her rough n’ ready upbringing – gifts of experience and capability and living outside of the mainstream – that her grandchildren and ours simply haven’t seen.  And that’s good and bad at the same time.

Seventy-one years after Powell’s “Everything’s Dangerous,” men still ride the rodeo for reasons unexplainable to most of us. And a mother’s love of her children is stronger than anything else on earth. So when Blunt gives a play-by-play in her “Cooking from Scratch” essay of whipping-up a downhome breakfast for her grown son leaving that morning for military service, you’ve got to especially appreciate the skills Blunt picked-up on the range… and the character she developed there as well.

About the Artists: Book Arts Program Managing Director Marnie Powers-Torrey managed production. Creative Director David Wolske typeset and designed the text. Claire Taylor and Laura Decker produced multi-panel cover illustrations in dialogue with the essays and one another. Emily Tipps devised the structure, and oversaw binding. Candidates in the University of Utah’s graduate creative writing and book arts programs were instrumental in production. Go to http://www.lib.utah.edu/collections/red-butte-press/ for more info on this most intriguing publication.