Writer wrangles tales of women of West
KRISTIN M. McAndrews, a folklorist and English professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, spent 11 years studying dude ranches in and around Winthrop, Wash., a self-consciously frozen-in-time "Western frontier" town. Visitors come for horse rides, camping trips and the brief illusion of living in the Old West.
"Wrangling Women: Humor and Gender in the American West"
By Kristin M. McAndrews
(University of Nevada Press)
175 pages, $34.95
McAndrews' fascination lies with the professionals who make sure these city slickers are safe and have a good time. Known as packers, they are mostly single women -- feisty, independent and hair-trigger ready to duke it out verbally with each other or the men they live among.
Their combative language is what chiefly interests McAndrews. Tough and indomitable, they face challenges their male counterparts can hardly imagine: the constant threat of sexual harassment and annoyingly persistent Old World assumptions about women. This is intensified by the town's 19th-century architecture and culture, including a general reluctance to acknowledge the women's competence, ability and strength.
Their response has been to develop unique work and life styles, bolstered by unexpected forms of storytelling. These outrageously tall tales are typically supportive and subversive -- caring of the tellers and their friends yet waspishly ironic when dealing with males and visitors.
It's endearing, for example, that three of these leathery, middle-age cowpunchers (judging from the book's photos) still have girly sleepovers in each other's homes where they sew together all night -- Bitch and Stitch sessions, they call them.
The best parts of McAndrews' book are the verbatim renderings of the wranglers' stories delivered around their campfires or in their kitchens of an evening, describing this or that "horse wreck" (riding disaster) or the latest "stupid tourist" anecdote. There are many, lovingly recorded and dissected by McAndrews. It's hard to forget the two 300-pound women who nearly killed their horses with their weight, or the lesbian couple who turned out to be policewomen, amusingly unable to arrest their marijuana-smoking packer once their own illicit secret was in the open.
Other narratives show how Winthrop's lady wranglers quietly work within traditional gender stereotypes, subtly undermining them through laughter, attitude and relationships. It's a life they've all embraced -- exhaustingly physical, sometimes dangerous, but always centered on the horses they adore.
Bravo to Kristin McAndrews for spotting a unique feature of modern American life and immortalizing it in an entertaining and readable study.
can be ordered through bookstores or via www.nvbooks.nevada.edu
. Michael Egan is a published author, scholar in residence at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and adjunct professor of English at TransPacific Hawaii College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org