Bird Cloud, Annie Proulx’s first work of nonfiction in twenty years, is subtitled “A Memoir.” To many readers who might be hoping for a full-blown, linear account of Proulx’s life, this subtitle will be somewhat misleading and possibly disappointing. For careful readers and those with strong, natural curiosity, however, Bird Cloud will be a treasure in which Proulx reveals herself – sometimes directly and other times in more subtle ways. Proulx’s memoir is a great example of being shown what a person is about rather than being told what she is like. It is, admittedly, an untraditional way to present a personal memoir, but when examined as a portrait of a specific stretch of time – the building of Proulx’s home – the book becomes a beautiful reflection of that period.
Annie Proulx has achieved tremendous literary success with her works of fiction. She won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for her novel The Shipping News, which tells the story of Quoyle, a lost and heartbroken father trying to create a life for his daughter in rugged and spirit-testing Newfoundland. She is also well known for her short story Brokeback Mountain, which received an O. Henry Award prize for fiction in 1998; the collection in which the story appears, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Both The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain were adapted into poignant and visually stunning films. The film Brokeback Mountain, in fact, won seventy-one awards in 2005. Place is a recurrent subject in much of Proulx’s work. How people develop and respond to their geographic location in the world is a constant theme in her story-telling and is integral to the theme of Bird Cloud as well.
In 2003, Proulx became the owner of 640 acres of rural Wyoming property, after a ten year search for “the right place.” She purchased this one square mile of land from the Nature Conservancy, “[The] place, perhaps, where I will end my days. Or so I think.” Early on in the memoir, we are given clear statements that Proulx, who was sixty-eight at the time she began this process, was “intensely conscious of fleeting time”and was worried about “a time budget as [she] was not getting any younger. Bird Cloud is cleverly arranged with this idea of time in mind. Chapters alternate between the progress of Proulx’s house building and her areas of personal interest. A small drawing, created by Proulx, begins each new chapter of the book. The drawings, while simple on initial glance, are very detailed and striking.
To build her home at Bird Cloud, Proulx assembles a talented and diverse team of workers to construct the house. Men with such amusing monikers as The James Gang, Uphill Bob, Catfish and Mr. Solar, are entrusted with creating her dream home. That their names could have been plucked from one of Proulx’s own works of fiction is not lost on me. The James Gang, in particular, becomes very close with Proulx; they often take short camping holidays together, and at one point, one of the members of The James Gang and Proulx fly to the Mayo Clinic to have some health concerns addressed. Proulx had some concerns about her right hip and was worried about arthritis affecting the joint; while Deryl was struggling with some complicated issues with his health. He had received several troubling and different diagnoses in Wyoming, so hoped to get to the root of his problems by traveling to the Mayo Clinic with Proulx.
After three years of a construction process marked by obstacles, set-backs, and disappointments. Proulx finally moves into her new house. It has become evident to her, however, that despite her hopes the new house cannot be her final home. She is disappointed to learn that, contrary to her realtor’s promise, the road to Bird Cloud is not plowed during the winter, so it will impossible for her to stay there. Proulx continues her pattern of spending winters in Santa Fe and laments a lost dream, still restless in her search for the feeling of finally being home.
I was struck by Proulx’s curiosity about a variety of subjects. Archaeology, natural history, genealogy, Wyoming’s people, birds, books – all of these things inspire her to gather more knowledge. She seeks out experts and devours details and information. She carries a pocket microscope, so she can more closely examine articles of interest discovered while hiking or cross-country skiing. I had guessed, by reading Proulx’s fiction, that she spent much time on research and was as exacting with her details as she was in crafting her sentences. The details of Proulx’s memoir bear this out. We are given a feeling for Proulx’s writing process as, during the construction of her home and her subsequent move into the place, she is collaborating on a book. She writes about that project and also talks about her love of books, a love I share. I became a bit envious and excited as I read about Proulx’s “fifty-six book cases, each weighing hundreds of pounds” and “forty-odd boxes of manuscripts and drafts,”all well ordered and labelled; evidence, indeed of a curious mind and meticulous methods.
Through reading Bird Cloud, I feel as though I have come to understand more about Annie Proulx. This book is one that continues to grow on me as I recall remarkable details so brilliantly captured for readers. The last chapter is devoted to birds, in particular the eagles of Bird Cloud. Proulx’s observations are keen and when, at the end of the chapter (and the end of story) she sees a familiar eagle with a new partner, she has a momentary hope for the male bird. The female eagle, after being shown her potential new home, “took off, heading west, and the lone eagle pursued her. I assumed she didn’t like the place.” The following day both eagles are back, but it is too late in the year to start a family. Proulx notes this is “…a common wildlife situation of hope deferred.” And here is the heart of Proulx’s book: a story of hope deferred, for the birds, and for herself.