|Chapter 1:||Historical Erasure and Recovery in Gretel Ehrlich’s“The Solace of Open Spaces” and Janet Campbell Hale’S “Bloodlines”: “Odyssey of a Native Daughter”|
The critical tendency to interpret The Solace of Open Spaces primarily in terms of Ehrlich’s portrayal of human relations with the natural world fails to consider the complicated relationship between the text’s “open” landscape representations and its treatment of racialized histories.1 Yet the text’s ruminations on the natural world engage the mythic conventions of formula Westerns (even as The Solace of Open Spaces consciously seeks to revise these conventions in terms of gender). As Kent Ryden notes, “Ehrlich takes as her primary task and goal a direct encounter with the nonhuman world” (20). The critical focus on Ehrlich’s status as a nature writer neglects the ways in which the memoir’s twelve essays remythologize the contemporary West as a regenerative space. Like New Western memoirs such as Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky (1978), Teresa Jordan’s Riding the White Horse Home (1993), and Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction (1999), The Solace of Open Spaces reinscribes the very processes of western colonialism that it seems to call into question.2
The text’s vexed relationship to New Western revisionism parallels its paradoxical connection to the tradition of self-exploration in autobiography. In twelve thematically related autobiographical essays, The Solace of Open Spaces describes Ehrlich’s process of adaptation after she relocates to Wyoming following the death of her partner, David. In a series of sketches that meditate on various aspects of ranch life ranging from sheepherding to harsh winters, cowboys, and encounters with the landscape, The Solace of Open Spaces parallels Ehrlich’s healing process with her adaptation to the Wyoming landscape and people, depicting Ehrlich’s transformation from awkward outsider to accepted insider. Instead of (more conventionally) exploring the inner dimensions of the autobiographical subject, Ehrlich continually returns to the central paradox of the text: how an apparently stark, harsh, and forbidding landscape ultimately reveals itself to be nurturing and curative for the human subjects who inhabit it.
Central to these ruminations on landscape is The Solace of Open Spaces’s insertion of a female subject into both the masculine space of Wyoming sheep ranches and the masculine domain of autobiography. Jeanne Braham observes that in women’s autobiography, “the female self is never defined in isolation” (3), but as part of a community, countering the male tendency to emphasize “a unique and autonomous self ” (Couser 13). Thus, “the ideology of the genre” has conventionally corresponded to the individualism of mainstream American culture (24).