In my experience, there are few, if any, writers whose written life I would more want to occupy my own thoughts than Mark Spragg. For a reader who understands how much he has missed, one who particularly missed the kind of living and breathing Mark Spragg tells here, the experience of reading is, as I say, becoming a spirit.
(He also wrote the book that turned into the movie, Unfinished Life, which he apparently is not entirely happy with.) His achingly humble way of speaking and subtle wit were a pure joy to listen to.
The book is now ten years old and I dont think there has been any revelations about the improprieties of the author in the telling of his life. Most of the essays in the book were written at least 30 years after they took place. Spragg does such an excellent job of looking into the thoughts and feelings of his eleven year old self, and those thoughts and feelings are so deep, lucid and emotion-laden, that it is easy to imagine they are fictionalized. This book is an excellent example of writing about the American West and how it was so recently, and in some places still is. Spraggs family moved to Wyoming to run a dude ranch and eleven year old Mark was expected to be part of the business. In his words: When I was a boy my father had horses, over a hundred of them. He believed that horses were to use and that boys were nothing if not used.... When I am mounted it feels as though I must draw my breath through half a tone of animal to fill my lungs. When I am older I will think of the difference between walking and riding to be the difference between prayer and the effect of prayer.(p36) The book deals with the how raw and brutal nature can be and the men who live on the land. When he was 13, wile out hunting elk with a ranch hand in his forties, John, Spragg has to be a man. It is Spraggs responsibility to bandage the man and continue skinning the elk. During the night, as Spragg is awake, he takes the knife that skinned the elk and John, and hones the blade as he has seen John do it, reflecting on the sound it makes: It is the sound John makes with the knife. The sound of a mans arms working against his sides in the sun. The book is unapologetic in its rawness of life, death and work. Spraggs father guides hunters. They use old, dying horses as bait. When the horse, Socks, 15 year old Spragg has ridden for two years gets cut with a wire and his leg is gangrenous, his father asks him to take the horse out to the grizzly blind and shoot him to use him as bait. We watch the rhythm of her arms paying out the line in arcs over the river, working into the length of her cast. (pp240-41) Spragg has a way of not finishing narratives, but rather focusing on the feeling and emotions of the piece to let each essay carry it to its conclusion.
Mark Spragg, the author, gave the reader such an amazing detail of the land that you felt like you with him in Wyoming.
Spragg spent most of his childhood growing up on the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming, and he chronicles the formative experiences of this unique opportunity in such loving and heartbreaking vignettes. Just as I was about to lose myself in planning an escape from a trivial corporate job for one so organic and fulfilling as working with animals, Spragg grounded me with his passages concerning the wind and cold, taking care of his dying mother, and having to kill his beloved horses (or learning how to swiftly kill an animal in general).
This is a paean to the male rights of passage, using the beautiful but harsh wilderness of Wyoming as the backdrop. In one passage, the author sums up his experience with the following "I did not know that I lived on the largest block of unfenced wilderness in the lower forty eight states.
Significant that I've read it three times. A favorite passage: "I was a boy, and I believed deeply in the sightedness of horses.
Best book I have read in a long time. Not really in story form; more like essays that string together his life and longings.
I failed to grasp until pathetically deep into the book that this is a collection of essays...that explains the loose connection from chapter to chapter. At any rate, some of Spragg's essays really resonated, while others I lost interest as he delved fairly deep into the details of the environment/landscape in Wyoming. It evoked the "fight or flight" that all of us feel as the narrator and his hunting companion realize the bear has circled around and is now tracking them: "We stop and we listen, and then we move again.