Breaking Clean

by Judy Blunt

Both of my parents grew up on farms in Montana and both left farming as soon as they could. So I was curious to read this highly acclaimed memoir by Judy Blunt, a third generation homesteader in the eastern part of the state. Judy grew up more than an hour from the town of Malta, population 2,500, the biggest town within a hundred miles of any direction. When she married at age 18, she didn't go far: fifteen miles to a neighboring ranch. Three children and thirteen years later, she left the land she belonged to for good.

These are the bare bones of her story, but they don't begin to do it justice. Much of the book concerns the sacrifices and accommodations her parents and grandparents made to the demanding god of self-sufficiency. Clothes were sewn at home, washed against a scrub board, fed through a wringer, worn by one kid, patched and handed down to the next. Vegetables were grown in kitchen gardens and canned or stored in the root cellar. Judy's parents raised cattle and she learned not to get attached to any one of them, because someday you might have to face your friend on the end of a fork. "I made it through meals of fresh liver, of sweetbreads. And heart. In the end, only once did I pull away, mute and nearly choking on the lump in my throat. I could not, would not, eat his tongue."

We might expect some of the challenges from our notions of ranching life: outhouses, blizzards, prairie fires and one-room schoolhouses. But other tales in this book are surprising and unique, such as the one about their skinny, strange teacher, Mr. Saxton, a Catholic who introduced Judy and her sister to both God and Cary Grant with an all-day trip to a mission and the movies. Judy held out against womanhood as long as she could, wearing a ratty coat to hide her chest and hiding her bloody rags in the outhouse. And while Ms. Blunt may be critical of the rigid sex roles imposed on the ranch children, she doesn't spare herself when it comes to uncomfortable stories. One in particular stays with me: she and her sister bludgeoning a porcupine to death with sticks. "There was a look in my sister's eyes, something bloody and profane that was mine…It was the moment childhood became no longer possible."

All in all, Judy and her siblings worked hard, played hard and grew up fast. When it came time to go to high school at age 14, she boarded in Malta in the same house as her older brother. He offered her no leg up into this unfamiliar world and she expected none. She narrowly escaped what we would now call "date rape." Her willfulness caused her parents some heartache. The older neighbor boy who continued to court her through high school provided them all with an escape valve and, somewhat against her better judgement, she married him the spring after she graduated.

Although several chapters deal with the hardships of being a ranch wife, Ms. Blunt draws a respectful curtain around the most personal details of her marriage and breakup. In the foreword, she states, "I want to acknowledge those who might choose a different version of the story than the one I tell…I've long since made my peace with the variety of fiction we call truth."

In the end, I admire this book as much for its fairness and discretion as for the evocative, graceful writing. It left me with a great deal of respect for the author as a person, as well as a writer.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman-Nicol on January 21, 2011

Breaking Clean
by Judy Blunt

  • Publication Date: January 7, 2003
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375701303
  • ISBN-13: 9780375701306