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Growing up in rural Montana in the 1950’s and 1960’s was a life a large majority of Americans cannot fully comprehend, appreciate, nor would even want to live. It was a hard life for men who worked farms, and was especially hard for the women who shared this life as well. Breaking Clean is a simple, honest memoir written by Judy Blunt who grew up as the third child out of five of a third-generation of homesteaders in eastern Montana. The family farm was closest to the town of Malta with a population of only 2,500 that was more than an hour away, and the biggest town there was within a hundred miles in any direction.
People in these Montana prairies had an isolated life where “Every generation relearns the rules its fathers have forgotten”, cursed nature when it threatens their livelihood, yet realized that “This land owes you nothing” [p. 60]. This was a time and region where the difference between what was expected of men and women was paramount. Children grew up working hard, knowing their place in their society and grew up quickly as a result. Being somewhat of a tomboy, Blunt could handle farm equipment and chores as well as her brother, yet was still expected to learn how to cook, clean and care for the men. As with previous generations, it was expected that she follow a planned path to becoming a rancher’s wife. But Judy Blunt always felt there was something more to this hard, bleak life and began a long journey towards breaking clean from the constraints of her upbringing.
An example of the cycle followed by her father, his father, and his father before him is told when Blunt recalls a major blizzard in December 1964 that trapped the family and some neighbors in their small homestead. She unemotionally describes how her father simply proceeded to go through the motions of keeping the pipes from freezing, calmly accepting the fact that he could do nothing as the storm progressed and he could not prevent loss of a of their livestock. Or how when he first ventured out to check on the animals in their nearby barn and nearly lost his way back in whiteout conditions. Later, when the storm passed, she told of playing amongst the frozen corpses of the cattle, jumping from ribcage to ribcage, daring her older brother and sister to cut off pieces of the animals, all with the calm acceptance that this was so normal, nothing strange about it.
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By contrast, many of the experiences Blunt had during her school years, despite the isolation of her community, could have taken place anywhere. From the simple pride having her first personal possession (a clean, embroidered handkerchief), coveting prized desks and adding to the graffiti on them, to the arrogant pride in being accepting of an ‘outsider’, an Indian boy who attended her school. In retrospect, she knew her arrogance was a result of how she was raised and that ”there were so many things I knew without knowing why, things I learned as a child listening with half an ear to all that was said, and most intently to all that was not said" [pp. 84–85].
High school offered her first glimpse into the unfamiliar more urban world and her first steps out of childhood. At 14, she was sent to Malta, and had room and board at the same house as her older brother. Even then, she was given nothing but her own resources to cope with her new situation. Her attempts to fashion herself after models in magazines were met with snide remarks and scorn from the city girls, but being raised in a culture where self-pit was not accepted nor tolerated, she calmly tolerated the remarks. In contrast, the local in-town girls a mystery with their giggling over boys and exaggerated fear of small creatures. Blunt bravely went against the rigid morals she grew up in and experimented as many teenagers still do today, stealing make-up to wear from her mother and developing a cigarette habit unbecoming to a proper young lady. As with many teens, she found her parents did not agree with choice of “wild” girlfriends or her going out with boys not familiar to them within their rural community. She had become too willful in their eyes and threatened her newfound independence by nearly pulling her out of school and back to the farm. Judy felt she had no choice but obey their wishes knowing that she must protect this chance to learn more about the outside world and the changes she saw through the sources available in-town.
During this time of probation her visits home began to include reappearances from an older neighbor boy, John, recently back from Vietnam. While he fascinated her by his obvious interest in her, he still represented life back home as his family went back generations ranching and farming that country as well. Blunt did grow to have feelings of love for him and despite deep internal misgivings, she courted John through high school and married him the spring after she graduated. She became an 18-year-old newlywed, moving just 15 miles from home to become exactly what was expected of a good prairie daughter…a ranch wife.
It soon became apparent to Blunt that her romantic modern notions of being a wife and homemaker did not sit well with her new in-laws. She wrote, “I wed my sixties-style feminism to a system of conflicting expectations and beliefs only slightly altered by a century of mute nobility. My brand of feminism celebrated strength through silence” [p. 154]. Her father-in-law was a strict believer in women having their place, setting food down in front of him when he was hungry, having clean clothes when he needed them, producing children to carry on with the family. As Blunt and her husband worked and lived on property owned by him, he felt it his right to tell her exactly what her place was, why women should never own or manage anything of importance such as property, and often told his son to keep his wife in order. Her mother-in-law constantly attempted to rearrange her things and her life to fit the mold she, not Blunt, was comfortable with. Judy fell into a numb existence, silently working as hard as any man on farm chores, having children and slowly closing the gap into the outside world.
Hunting season in Montana brought in outsiders and city people camping in their farm fields and being food out of her kitchen. One season brought a city woman named Carol who in her own right, was a strong, successful and independent woman. Simple questions asked out of genuine curiosity of “What in the hell do you do out here?” What do you think I do? Then Blunt remembered reading about taking time for one-self. When was the last time she had time for herself? She could not recall.
The isolation of her existence started to become unbearable and her inner turmoil grew. A major turning point for her was when her young daughter became deathly ill and home remedy did not help. She knew that the baby needed modern medicine and a hospital, but she also knew that the muddy roads were dangerous and the journey was long, and there were still chores to tend to. While her husband wasn’t a cruel man, he was set in his ways and expected her to act in the ways he was accustomed. But when she firmly told him to get the truck and he knew how serious his daughter’s situation was, he silently did as she said. Here was an example of how the community of ranchers came together for their own, helping to clear paths through the impassable roadways and getting them out safely to the highway and to the hospital.
Her daughter survived, but Judy’s desire to remain on the ranch did not. She continued to drift apart from her husband, and eventually found the courage and strength to leave. Ironically, her upbringing of self-reliance and “being tough” helped her break away. She moved with her three young children to Missoula and began attending the University of Montana to pursue a career in writing. Courage, strength and honesty, whether coming from growing up in a rural setting or an urban situation is to be admired, and Breaking Clean is a memoir that can inspire anyone to hold on to their dreams and know they can achieve anything they desire.