Review of Pam Houston’s Deep Creek
April 26, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Gretchen Lida
“And this much is true,” writes Pam Houston, “as long as I am in charge of it, this land will not turn into condos, it will not be mined or forested, it will not have its water stolen or its trees chopped down. No one will be able to put a cell tower in the middle of my pasture and pay me $3,000 a year for space. One of the gifts of age though is the way it gently dispels, all our heroic notions. All the time I thought I was busy taking care of the Ranch, it was busy taking care of me.”
I’m a member of the priced-out Coloradoans club. There are many reasons I no longer live in the state of the flatirons, prairie grass, and skies so big it’s hard to not to be hopeful, but at the top of the list is that I can no longer afford to live there. My heart sluffs off a bit like sandstone every time I visit because one more mountainside or horse pasture has succumbed to another overpriced subdivision. So, when I read this line in Pam Houston’s latest book, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, I was hooked.
I might have been drawn by the charm of the 120-acre homestead at the center of the book, but I stayed for the story of a writer who shows us what it is like to type with callused hands. Here is a memoir that is honest about the hustling truth of making it as a writer, and how if we must write, we must give it all we have, even when we have to break out the childhood trauma to get there.
The ranch is juxtaposed with Houston’s constant travels. She goes in and out of the ranch from one teaching gig or writing assignment to another not only determined to pay for the ranch but also determined to pay for it on her own terms. While she is gone, she finds “ranch-sitters,” people who feed her sheep and horses and keep an eye on things when she is away. Usually, she finds young writers who need the time and space to work. Sometimes it is a success, other times it is a disaster.
It would be easy to glance over the plot of the book and assume that Houston’s story is a charmed one. She was able to buy the ranch with money from her first book. She writes for places like Outside. She teaches at UC-Davis. She is a world traveler, but Pam Houston shows us that she has earned and fought for it all. Her details show us how often she fought and scrambled to make the mortgage payments and how the sharp beauty of the San Juan Mountains is sometimes anything but forgiving. There are wildfires, droughts, subzero temperatures, and, of course, the fact that on a ranch there is always something that needs to be fixed. No matter, this place is Houston’s hard-earned home.
A safe home was not a thing Houston had as a child or a teenager. She was raised by often cruel, hard-drinking parents. She writes about a mother who often made her feel worthless and a father that was both physically and psychologically abusive. Houston writes about them so clearly in the book that the sting of it can be felt through the pages.
I wasn’t as riveted by the one chapter mostly about travel. It was still fun to read and carefully written, but for me, it lacked the bright sheen of the others. What did work though were the little sections between chapters called “Ranch Almanac” where her animals and the workings of the high country come to life. There are even tiny snow fences marking a section break, and beautiful photography of the farm as well.
Throughout the book, Houston’s elderly horses, Roany and Deseo, wander in and out of the narrative. There is an old proverb that says you can always judge a horseman by the way they care for the horses they can no longer ride. When I visit my grandmother back in Colorado, she is still softening feed for old horses. Like her, Pam Houston takes good care of not only her old horses but old dogs and sheep. This kindness shines through her prose, making this book a quiet gem among the noise of the world.
Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Horse Network, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is also a contributing writer to Book Riot and the Washington Independent Review of Books. She teaches composition in Illinois, lives in Chicago, sometimes resides on Nantucket Island, and is still a Colorado native. @GC_Lida
What a terrific review. You’ve captured much of what she seemed to say when she did a reading in Grand County. The book is definitely worth reading, as you say!
Really great review Gretchen. I love the details—tiny snow fences for section breaks. You really captured the heart of the author, which is not an easy thing in 1000 words or less. Thank you for sharing your love of this book. I’m off to check it out now!
Great review! Sara loaned me her copy which has been sitting in a to-be-read stack. I think it just got bumped up to the top!
The phrase “break out the childhood trauma” jumped out in this otherwise fine review. Can serious writers really believe memoirists “break out” their stories of tragic events to juice up their books? I loved Houston’s latest and did not want it to end. At AWP, she talked about how much more difficult this book was to write than any of her others — and as a reader, I felt what it cost her to describe the damage her father inflicted upon her, an awful but essential contrast in the story she wanted to tell about how, over time, she felt working on and with the land heal her.