From writer, poet, and working cowboy Amy Hale Auker’s new collection of creative nonfiction, Ordinary Skin: Essays from Willow Springs:
Icons only work if there is something of substance to back them up. The cowboy as icon only works if we keep the bedrock, the substance behind him. He is not some model of character or ethics or integrity, but a husband of the land, a grower of food. He is not an actor getting his share of the corporate take by reciting the words of scriptwriters and asking his horse to rear in time to the music. The cowboy is not a nostalgic touchstone from Saturday matinees, but a present-day reality, saddling his horse and getting greasy in the shop and building a fence. Six-guns and wooly chaps and parades and rodeos aside, the cowboy is a steward of precious resources, a caretaker of animals.
Amy Hale Auker’s Ordinary Skin is a deeply personal and original view from today’s working West. “Thoughtful” would be too passive a description for the writing; she is anything but passive. She is startlingly present, exquisitely and equally attuned to mud bugs and cows and horses with attitude and the heart of an aged grandfather. It’s an outstanding collection of narrative nonfiction, brave in its honesty and vast in its themes.
And the narrative is the thing. She is a deft storyteller. Her transition from ranch wife to working cowboy was hard won and she writes about it candidly, in descriptions both tough and tender. Hers is not your grandfather’s cowboy life. Or is it? She offers up plenty of cowboy tales, with all the failures and successes of ranch work. It is the “romance of ranching life,” both in its ironic sense and its sense of deep fulfillment.
There are rich, often sensuous, passages, especially when she writes of her ranch manager partner and lover and their labor together in Arizona’s remote and rugged Santa Maria mountains. One moving piece begins, “…We rode out early of a morning after a big fight the night before. Working together means no time-out after hurtful words in the dark …” The long ride to their destination helps to heal, “As we stepped off to air our horses’ backs before dropping down into the deep crease in the earth, a heavy late-spring snow began to fall all around us, one of the most beautiful moments of my life…” You’ll want to read about what happened next.
She observes others, especially her family, with clarity and compassion, even when their style may be contrary to her own. In one anecdote, her father’s anger has the family sitting at the dinner table in “stiff silence,” no one wanting to become the focus of his attention. She writes, “My mother, always and forever trying to make peace, looked out the plate glass window and said, ‘My, aren’t the birds pretty.'” There’s no judgment in the telling of the story. She tells it like it was, and you find yourself as relieved as the rest of the family must have been when the comment breaks the tension and leads her father to respond with a roar of laughter. Next, you may find yourself reflecting on the lessons there. Once again Amy Hale Auker shows you something, and leaves any conclusions to the reader.
Ordinary Skin is much worth savoring and contemplating. The writing is polished to a sheen: “First came glassy jewels of hail the size of juniper berries and just as blue. Then came driving sideways rain and the ground began to run and move and designate its low places and its high.”
Amy Hale Auker fearlessly makes her own way through a challenging and rewarding life, paying attention. There’s no hubris in these essays, just keen observation, respect and love for friends and family, and a humble reverence for and curiosity about the natural world. Like the best poetry—and her prose often approaches poetry—the writing is filled with metaphor, the sort that might make you gaze up from the book and stop to consider, for example, what you and those mudbugs might have in common.
With well-received books to her credit (a previous book of essays and two novels) her steady voice has become an important voice. In Ordinary Skin, that voice soars.
Ordinary Skin is published by Texas Tech University Press, under the wise and guiding hand of Senior Editor Andy Wilkinson, as a part of the “Voice in the American West” series.
Find more at www.amyhaleauker.com.