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The Character of Elizabeth Gruber in The River Warren
After reading The River Warren by Kent Myers, I felt a kinship with Elizabeth Gruber. Her loss had been an enormous one. Her return to reality and the world around her took great inner strength. The numbness and the void she was experiencing is very real and can be all consuming if not put in check, not just for women but all humans. We as humans are all different and the grief process is different for all of us. Elizabeth, upon being aroused from her pit of grief, realizes that her strength and connection with her husband, Leo, is the only thing that is going to bring him back form his deep, dark, prison of regret, grief, and guilt. I felt her pain in both the loss of her child and the painful silence that her marriage had become. As Elizabeth drives to the field and assaults the tractor with a rock, I remember times when I would have loved to do the same thing. Only I was not brave enough to attack the iron mistress that takes away the farmer's spare time.
Many farmers I know respond to grief, stress and anxiety the same way Leo Gruber does. They bury themselves in their work. There they can think, and they have control. Many times, with all of us, the intense feelings of guilt and sorrow make us feel as if we have lost control of our world. So we retreat to a place where we can have control. For Leo it was his work, and his tractor. Liz Beth brought him back to the real world. Cowboys, farmers and men of the west learned to shut themselves off, and they weren't allowed to feel or show emotion. To these men showing real feeling and emotion was a sign of weakness, and the weak don't survive in the west, at least that is the way they were trained to think for many generations.
My father is a fourth generation South Dakotan. For many years as I was growing up I wandered if he had ice in his veins, just as Jeff had wondered about his father.
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Elizabeth Gruber understands this strength and also knows when things have to change. She isn't afraid to change them. When Liz Beth (this is Leo's name for her) finally reaches through the silent wall that Leo has built, there is laughter and tears. Contact has been made. Now they can start healing.
My only problem with Myers is his portrayal of Elizabeth Gruber in this scene. The farm women I know are tough. I get the impression that as Leo is wadding through a truckload of dead cattle that Liz Beth goes home and waits. Farm wives that just sit in the house and wait for their men to come home are very rare. There is no mention of what Liz Beth did while she waited for Leo to return. I feel that by not giving Elizabeth some nervous activity Myers is giving the impression that she had none. This is selling her short and almost gives her an ornamental status. There is only one short line that mentions Liz Beth on a tractor, or doing something besides housework. "Yet I think of him all the time now-Simon Lane Crandell and what he did. Weeding my garden, driving tractor- he's on my mind". More information about Liz Beth could have been beneficial to readers like myself. I wonder how many readers thought, she must be driving a garden tractor, women don't drive the big ones. Many times the role women play on the successful farm is undercut. That is to say that they work very hard and receive very little credit for their labors.
After reading Meyer's novel, I started looking for writings about farm and ranch wives. There are a few monthly publications including, CountryWoman, and Farm Journal that have writings for and about countrywomen. Then I read a book that Dr. Fuqua recommended, Leaning Into The Wind, edited by Linda Hasselstrom, Gaydell Collier and Nancy Curtis. It is a wonderful collection of poems, thoughts, and reflections from over 200 countrywomen. And it is the most realistic and truthful account of what life is like for women in the west that I have ever read. Reading this book was like reading my grandmother's or my mother's diary. It tells of calving out cows, breaking ice on frozen rivers, training horses and many other day to day activities of these wonderful women.
This collection tells stories of what life is really like for the farm and ranch wife. The yearly joy of birth, the pain of death to a predator, and the feeling of being part of the land. Here, it is the women who are getting up at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning, walking through frozen corrals looking for newborn calves, lambs, and foals, herding them into the protection of the barn before they freeze, and keeping a watchful eye out for the mothers approaching their delivery times. One of my favorite stories is of a 20-year Old Norwegian girl who moves to Harding County South Dakota in the 1920's. She homesteads her own land and starts her own ranch. Then she decides to marry. Even after she is married she plows her own fields, and plants her own crops. This may not seem to be that unusual, except she plows with horses and plants the seeds by hand, not just an acre or two but 37 1/2 acres.(Hasskestrom 332) If you don't feel that this is a feat then I invite any of you to try it now. You can bet that even after a long day in the field she still was responsible for the care and maintenance of the family and home.
These are the women I wanted to read about. They didn't just sit in the house and bake. They were out right next to their men, or doing the work that the men could no longer do. These are women like my mother. My mom, Leona McFarland, is 66 years old but doesn't look her age. At five foot nothing, she can take any man around and work him into the ground barely even breaking a sweat. My mom has always been the driving force behind the ranch. She taught all of us the importance of being true to the land and being a good caretaker of the animals. My mom and "us kids" (there were five of us), spent our days working side by side with Dad. It was truly a family operation. At the end of the day we all went back to the house. Only we, the girls, kept on working while the men put their feet up and relaxed. The female members of the family would make the meals, clean the house, do laundry, and keep on working no matter how hard we had already worked out side. That is just the way it was. My mother has done this all of her life. Even now at her age, she still runs the families ranch that is made up of over 15,000 acres. She runs cattle for three different ranchers, owns and operates the only gas stop and grocery store for over 35 miles in any direction, and takes care of my father who has been an invalid for over 10 years.
Women like my mom are not rare. They settled this country and they keep the family farm going. They just stay home and work. They work so hard that they disappear and get lost in the land. They deserve to be recognized. Elizabeth Gruber is a farm wife and I feel that she has all the toughness that these other women have. You have to be tough to lose a child and keep on going. You have to be tough to put your whole future into the land and gamble with the elements. Why you say? Why work so hard when you can live in town? Living in town would be a death sentence to these women. They want to be on the ranch or farm for all long as the good Lord allows. They yearn to always feel the sun on their faces and the wind to their backs, to see the glory of a sunrise and hear the birds sing from a fence post.
Leaning Into The Wind goes into the heart of the western woman, and it explains the feelings of the farmer and the rancher with their unconditional love for the land. It takes a certain type of person to do what these women do, tough yet able to bend. These women drive tractors, rebuild motors, haul rocks, break horses, herd cattle, feed chickens, butcher, can produce, feed their families, clean house and keep their families together. They don't complain, it's just the way things are. Simple, honest and caring.
Meyers, Kent. The River Warren. St Paul: Hungry Mind Press, 1998.
Hasselstrom, Linda, Gaydell Collier and Nancy Curtis. Leaning into the Wind. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.