Home as Sanctuary

by Luke Wahlmeier

Home as Sanctuary

by Luke Wahlmeier

by Luke Wahlmeier

A Reading of Pam Houston’s Deep Creek

By Marcia Allen, Collection Services Manager

What a please it can be to discover a favorite new author!  For me, Pam Houston has been a tremendous new discovery, and I’ve enthusiastically recommended her books, especially her latest, to other readers.  Hopefully, these titles will appeal to you as well.

Cowboys Are My Weakness is a book of short stories that came out in 1992.  This collection, mostly written when Houston worked as a river and hunting guide, explores the differences in relationships between men and women.  Houston’s women characters have frequently made bad choices in men, choices that have resulted in dangerous situations or at least glaring misunderstandings.  In the title story, for example, a narrator who could well be Houston herself, stays at an isolated ranch house while her wildlife specialist boyfriend studies the behavior of whitetail deer and explores romances with other women.  When our narrator meets a cowboy who might offer her a more stable relationship, the two arrange to meet at a dance, and she contemplates how closely this new cowboy resembles the fantasy man of her dreams.  Other stories in this book offer equally flawed relationships, often in wickedly funny ways.

Contents May Have Shifted is a novel Houston published in 2012.   The story is a series of episodes taking place in various parts of the world. Tucked among those episodes are experiences on airline flights, some alarming, some reflections on natural beauty.  Throughout, the narrator (another Houston-like character) seems to be seeking a life worth meaning, one that she discovers only in the freedom of travel and new experiences. Some of the author’s short episodes are quite funny, but there is also the realization that life is not without pain and the unexpected.  A flying experience with a pilot named George in a plane held together with duct tape, for example, turns into a panicky situation when the plane runs out of fuel.  Turns out that George was just having a little fun and laughingly switched over to the other tank after a short glide above unbroken wilderness.

My favorite Houston title is her latest book.  Just published to rave reviews is her memoir entitled Deep Creek.   Within the pages of this lovely book, Houston tells of her many journeys to locate her perfect home.  It isn’t until she locates the town of Creede, Colorado that she discovers what home really is.  With little money, she makes a down payment on a 120-acre ranch and begins life in an old ranch house.  Within its walls, she realizes a peace she’d never experienced before.  And her views of the adjoining wilderness could not be better.

To be sure, she came to the ranch with little experience.  She knew she wanted horses, dogs and chickens, but she knew little about their care.  Fortunately, she was befriended by kind neighbors who quickly educate her about animal feeding and care, as well as extra steps to be taken before the arrival of a harsh winter.  And her learning experiences, sometimes painful as they are, make her a better rancher and a better conservationist.

Hers is not an idyllic life.  She faces the loss of beloved animals, and the discovery that she must leave responsible individuals in charge when her university teaching duties require her to return to California.  She comes to understand the terrible losses that an uncontrolled fire can bring.  She learns of the cruelty that others may bring, like the thoughtless slaughter of wild animals by poachers.

Interspersed with chapters describing ranching life, we read of flashbacks to Houston’s childhood.  It is there that we realize what created in her a restlessness and a terrible yearning for a special home.  Without sentimentality, she describes the horrible sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her father and the cold indifference she learned from her alcoholic mother.  We also read of the years of therapy she underwent during her recovery from the damages of bad parenting. 

Houston is a gifted writer.  She has managed to merge hauntingly beautiful descriptions of her wilderness home with horrendous childhood experiences that made her who she is.  You’ll find that a couple hours reading her memoir allows you a whole new perspective on home and healing.

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