Two minutes ago, I closed the last page of When I Came West by Laurie Wagner Buyer and sighed. My thoughts went to a wood sculpture of a young nude woman in my living room titled “Innocence.” When I bought the 2 1/2 foot high hewn piece of wood in 2004, it already had a crack from the side of the head, down the neck, across the heart to the pubic bone. The sculptor said the piece was fragile and needed special care. “Innocence,” with a crack in the object, seemed a fitting title. It still does.
Innocence always ends and is replaced by the experience of reality. This is why I sighed on completing Laurie Wagner Buyer’s book. The author’s memoir of arriving, all twenty year-old innocence, at a remote cabin in Montana to live with a mountain man she only knows through letters, is a situation the reader intuits from the outset will not work out. But, we do want to know all the details of her loss of innocence, and what she learns along the way. We want to know how deep the cracks go. We want to know what form the cracks take. We want to know what’s on the other side of innocence.
Following the author’s narrative, the reader learns about the ingenuity, work, and grit of the mountain man in his daily existence. A clear picture emerges of Little Fawn (Laurie) trying desperately to adapt from her previous suburban lifestyle to this spartan, rugged, harsh existence on the bank of the Northfork of the Flathead River in Montana. Laurie’s acute young sensibilities lap up the wild beauty of this wilderness, and cling to the inside of her and won’t let go.
As I first imagined, I found out that reality meant:
The mountain man needed… separateness… more than he could take togetherness.
The innocent young girl needed… connection…so that she could enjoy her separateness.
I understand why Oklahoma University Press has published this book. It is full of authentic details of what living successfully in the wilderness in the 1970’s actually entailed. It is a piece of the West’s history.
By the end of reading When I Came West, I knew how and why Little Fawn’s innocence ended and what took innocence’s place. Who wouldn’t sigh with a little regret about a beautiful young girl with no money, who hops on a train to go live with a mountain man she’s never met in the remote wilderness of Montana, her dreams pulling her along beckoning, soft and alluring?