When Willa Cather wrote a female protagonist and gave an impression of male-ness to the hard, western landscape of her novel, O Pioneers, she probably wasn’t trying to do anything radical. She was writing what she knew. Though perhaps she also meant the book to be a deliberate misreading of the classic literary myth of America, as Nina Baym argues in her ground-breaking 1981 essay “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors.” Baym sees the myth as inherently masculine: the (male) individual traipsing off alone in a struggle to tame the wilderness, far away from culture. Man versus (female) nature. Man versus (female) society. Of course, Cather writing that confrontation with landscape and culture from the perspective of a woman naturally turned the whole myth right on its head. This was a problem, Baym points out, because, “If [an author] does not conform to the myth, she is understood to be writing minor or trivial literature.”
A lot has changed since Cather’s day—and since Baym’s essay—but the world still skews male. The western regional novel still can’t help but smell pretty strongly of male sweat. Ranching in the desert takes muscle, and in Bev Magennis’ debut novel, Alibi Creek (Torrey House Press, 2016), backcountry Dax County, New Mexico, is a man’s world—7,000 miles of wild, rough, dry desert. A fighting place. A place where politics is dominated by lazy, corrupt men who’ll fire you (if not fire at you) if you criticize. Outsiders not welcome.
But the desert is beautiful, too: a place teeming with life, where a person might even be reborn, in characteristic American mythical style. Alibi Creek is the story of Lee Ann Walker, a woman trying to survive in all that dust and sweat, with a woman’s concerns about family and connection, and the loneliness that goes with being female in a man’s sphere. But Lee Ann has a place here, too, and her part is important for the men’s survival. In that man’s world, woman is the rain, the life-giving water that lets things grow and hang together—even the things you’d rather didn’t.
Lee Ann’s a pleaser, a caretaker. She keeps her own world together by praying to her god and keeping people—mostly men—happy: her corrupt county commissioner bosses and invalid mother; the ranch and all the people on it—her husband and sons; the hired help—who aren’t just help, they’re people—you need them, they need you; even the house plants:
The ficus and jade trees desperately needed larger pots. Baby spider plants begged for freedom from their mother and the sansevieria cried to be divided…‘There,’ she said, after placing the newly potted plants in the mudroom and sweeping up the mess. ‘If you aren’t happy now, you will be by next week. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.’
That’s a lovely little scene. It captures Lee Ann’s selfless nurturing style quite perfectly.
And now Lee Ann has to add to the list her troublemaker brother, Walker, fresh out of prison and ready for new mischief. But when Walker’s taste for trouble spills over into Lee Ann’s life, threatening the things Lee Ann needs most, she’s faced with a crisis of faith, a crisis of self. The nurturing that is the center of her religion is like the desert rain which inevitably brings on Lee Ann’s debilitating migraine headaches–life-giving, but damaging, too. Alibi Creek begins with one of those rain-induced headaches, and Lee Ann’s awareness that she facilitates her bosses’ dishonest use of county funds.
Like Cather’s O Pioneers! (and unlike so many books about the American myth), Alibi Creek isn’t just about the struggle of the self alone—woman vs. nature, woman vs. society— it’s about connection to both. It’s a story of identity and family relationships, as one woman learns to face the truth about herself and her family, to recover what she’s lost, to let go of the connections that suck her life away, and fight for her own bit of water in the desert—her right to be nurtured, too, and find epiphany and transformation in the desert landscape.
Although the rather lyrical style of the book leaves you feeling somewhat detached from the action, as if the reader is a desert red-tailed hawk circling the characters from a faded blue sky overhead, focusing first on Lee Ann, and then on her brother, Walker, Magennis does a nice job of pulling us out of that detachment and into Lee Ann’s head at just the right moments:
No, no one knew how hard she tried, how she believed in a God who ignored her, how she reached out to a man who didn’t touch her, how she defended a brother who didn’t regard her, how she obeyed commissioners who used her. She hung up her apron. Time to put Mother to bed.
Those juxtaposed lines are brilliant. Just as everything begins falling apart, Lee Ann pulls us up short by hanging up her apron and moving on to the next task. When we see this tough, enduring woman silently breaking her heart over the man she loves most, we can’t help breaking ours for her, too. When she gets her knuckles bloody, we’re right there with her. Lee Ann loves deeply, and we love her for it. Walker is interesting, too, but ultimately not as compelling because he doesn’t truly love. Lee Ann’s brother is cheerfully, destructively, detached from the concerns of the people around him, a detachment that finally turns back on him, underscoring the need for connection and balance—those supposedly feminine values—as much as individual strength and cleverness in the struggle to survive.
Magennis employs some memorable images. The gradual spoiling and muddying of Lee Ann’s religious shrine, when Lee Ann drops her bible in the water or leaves things on it that warp its tissue-thin pages; her increasingly futile attempts to wipe or iron those pages. The cracking of her picture of Jesus. The final filing of the bible onto the shelf between other ordinary books, and the packing away the Jesus picture into a box of no longer useful stuff.
A bull snake climbing out of its skin becomes a literal and metaphorical moment of transformation, from symbol of evil and death—and of Eve’s guilt and sin—into a symbol of beauty and new life—and of Lee Ann’s decision to embrace that life and her own, full self.
Bev Magennis tells her story in tiny, vivid scenes, and if the progression of meaning and connection of each to the ones around it is sometimes loosely held together—like sand—that style reflects the landscape of the story and seems to fit. Each scene and plot point fall like drops of rain in the New Mexico dust, little alternating moments of beauty and harshness.
If the final image of a tiny, 3-inch-high yellow flower struggling up through the sand—clearly representing Lee Ann’s own struggle to make a life in the desert—feels a bit heavy-handed, it, too, is still apt. The book ends as it begins: with rain, and this time, it’s a wholesome image. There is beauty in the struggle, it tells us. A woman can make life out of the dust.
Torrey House Press