First published in 1992, James Galvin’s The Meadow depicts the century-long history of a hay meadow in the mountains of the Colorado/Wyoming border, told through the eyes of Lyle, Ray, Clara, and App, of their unsentimental struggle to survive on an independent family ranch, along the way debunking much of the traditional romantic myth of the American West as we know it. Galvin knows the meadow like Thoreau knew Walden and the surrounding areas, and writes of it as intimately, giving it a sense of place only a native could. Imagine Walden as a western novel and you have a sense of what the book is like. Similar to Stoner (discussed here in an earlier entry), The Meadow is a quiet classic that you somehow discover because it has been kept alive mostly through word of mouth. It had received, along with Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, the award for Best Novel about the West that year, but unlike McCarthy’s novel which was a huge bestseller, The Meadow suffered a very different publishing fate, as few bookstores carried it. It came out in paperback the following year and subsequently obtained a devoted following.
Immediately upon finishing it, if you’re anything like me, you can’t wait to run out and tell others with a like mind about it. Even better (though rare) if you find someone who smiles and excitedly replies, yes I’ve read it, and you launch into an in-depth discussion of it. Although different in scope and milieu, it reminded me a lot of Vern Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time, published the previous year, also an elegy for a lost time and place, although The Meadow reads more like a novel written by a poet (which Galvin) is, with its close attention to detail, meticulous musical prose, plotted structure (though it also contains just the facts, ma’am), and unrequited denouement. By the end of the book, we know these people, unfamiliar as they may seem, intimately; we become linked to them because we cannot help but identify with and admire their heroic age-old struggle for survival; stoic, on the edge of a subsistence living, yet loving the place for what it gives them materially and spiritually. Even if you’re not interested in the subject matter, read it for the writing itself; in its way, for what it is, The Meadow is a perfect book..