Tuesday, May 28, 2024

#Bookreview of Sky Ranch: Reared in the High Country

By: Linda M. Lockwood
Publisher: She Writes Press
Publication Date: September 10, 2024
ISBN: 978-1-64742-634-7
Reviewed by: Rebecca Jane Johnson
Review Date: May 27, 2024

When Linda receives devastating news that her mother is dead, she must return to her childhood home of Okanogan, Washington to console her father. This challenge sets her on a journey to piece together memories of her mother, a ranchwoman who was a poet, homemaker, gardener, mistreated wife, sheepherder, baker, and more; sadly, she also suffered mental illness. The narrator of this memoir entitled Sky Ranch: Reared in the High Country grieves and agonizes—if only she had shared the news with her mother that she was pregnant, would that have saved her? 

Her quandary sparks reflection back to childhood memories, living and working on Sky Ranch. This gripping memoir traverses sheep meadows, wheat fields, livestock auctions, foal births, county fairs, and high-speed horse riding amidst the pristine foothills of the Chiliwist Valley. It features a real-life cowgirl coming of age to a young woman who witnesses the seemingly harmless cruelties that eventually lead to her mother’s soul-shattering sadness.  

Lockwood’s memories reach all the way back to age three when her father told her she was too big to sit on his lap. By age eight, she was carrying heavy buckets of saw dust to fill the hopper to keep a basement furnace going all night, as a means to stay warm in winter on the isolated ranch. Farm work never ended, and this powerful book reveals the grit needed for mucking out the sheep’s pen or picking rocks out of fields of wheat in July heat. 

Fixing fences, herding sheep, growing wheat, caring for dogs with rattle snake bites, playing the role of Nurse Kelly in a play mocking mental illness, through it all, the narrator’s older brother, Billy, bullies her incessantly about being ugly, scared, or sensitive. And from her kind but stern father’s perspective, money struggles are real: when they can’t afford ten puppies, some need to be thrown in a sack and drowned. When they can’t afford to keep a pet rabbit, and she is fat enough, time to eat her. 

When late January temperatures fall to zero and the ewes start to have lambs, Linda, Billy, and Mom must go out in the middle of the night to move the wet newborn lambs to warmth before they freeze. In spring, Dad flies planes over fields to spray the wheat with hormones to keep pests away. Every detail feels urgent and significant in piecing together what went wrong with Linda’s mother, Zelma. 

However, not all the vivid scenes of farm life involve tough labor; there are moments of lambs playing king of the hill in the snow while Linda and Billy make snow angels with their grandmother, as well as heartwarming moments, when Mom and Linda save a newborn “bummer” lamb that had been rejected by its mother. In this humane and gentle moment in the depths of winter, the narrator perceives her mother has some kind of magic and wants to grow up to be just like her—there is nothing her mother could not do. So, a reader starts to wonder: what contributed to her suffering with mental illness?

When Linda is nine years old, the family buys its first Arabian half thoroughbred, Red Pepper, a horse with a reputation of bucking dudes; nonetheless, the narrator is determined to learn to ride her. The horse did throw Linda a few times, but when her father could afford a Western saddle from a tack store, on credit, she stayed on in the new saddle and then galloped the horse with pride and elation. A reader starts to notice that the narrator’s love for and relationship to animals is more detailed and drawn out than her relationship with her mother. Lockwood deftly intersperses her narrative with poetry and prose that her mother wrote, revealing her mother had a gift that went disregarded.   

Lockwood writes with impressive agility, lively and vivid details, emotional intelligence, and a musical ear for beautiful sentences. Her story moves forward at a trot, reading like a horse ride through a shepherd girls’ invigorating childhood. When it comes to sensing possible sources of her mother’s mental illness, there is Zelma’s growing dissatisfaction with not being included in her husband’s business decisions and not being listened to about her needs or talents. Zelma gets a schizophrenia diagnosis, and Linda goes through high school ashamed of her mother’s illness. The narrator knows what a rough cowboy can do to mess up a sensitive filly; what about the ways women are treated? In the 1950s and 60s, how did male-centric ranch work contribute to what is labeled as “mental illness?” So, it is not only nature lovers and horse lovers who must read this book. Additionally, this vivid and compassionate story gives insights into factors that contribute to what is traditionally called mental illness, but what may be more systemic problems for which individuals get too much blame and scapegoating. 

Quill says: Sky Ranch: Reared in the High Country navigates the rich emotional spectrum of joys and hardships of farm life while confronting the tragic consequences of mistreated, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, long-term depression. 

For more information on Sky Ranch: Reared in the High Country, please visit the author's website: www.lindamlockwood.com

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