Mary Clearman Blew is an English professor at the University of Idaho. She has written a lot of books and stories, most of them autobiographical. This latest collection is a series of autobiographical tales, most of whose chapters had appeared in print elsewhere as independent essays.
I review it because in addition to being eminently readable it includes a few juicy sections on life as a “home schooler” of sorts in rural Montana during the 1940s. Blew wasn’t homeschooled as an intentional protest against formal education. It was just done from necessity. As soon as a school became available, Blew’s parents sent her. The book has lots of fascinating stuff about the little one room schoolhouse she attended as well, but in this review I’m only going to discuss the home school material.
Blew was born in 1939 on a ranch. Her parents intended her to be the “boy” as there wasn’t an actual one. She was supposed to work out in the barn and fields, helping her father with the ranch. But she herself wanted mostly to read. Her early years as related in this book consisted very largely of getting into funny and sometimes very dangerous scrapes with her little sister, and reading, first with her grandmother, and eventually all by herself. Reading was about the only thing a child of her age at her time out in the country could do with free time. The family didn’t get electricity until after World War II; they didn’t get a telephone until 1949; they didn’t get a television until 1956.
Blew’s mother was so busy with the ranch that she didn’t have much energy or time to devote to her two girls. The children’s early education was therefore mostly the responsibility of Blew’s grandmother. The summer of Blew’s third year her grandmother started teaching her to read. Blew at first didn’t much care for it–she much preferred being read aloud to:
But there I was, one afternoon, five or six years old and bored out of my mind, with nobody to play with but a toddler sister who needed a nap. I had a book and nobody had time to read it to me…. I wandered off across the yard with my book under my arm, barefoot, scabby kneed, and grumpy, the only person for miles with nothing to do…. The book was a fourth-grade geography textbook, with a yellow cover, probably lifted from some school of my grandmother’s. It’s title was Our Little Neighbors around the World at Work and Play, which I’m certain of, because I still possess the book. Well, what the. Give it a blankety-blank try. What happened was a flash of unblinding. In that new and unexpected light, I realized that I did not need to hear the sound of every separate letter, I did not need to mouth every word, in fact I did not need to pause on a word I did not understand. No, by golly, I could flow, absorbing whole lines, paragraphs, and pages as the lines and paragraphs and pages absorbed me. I think I realized something profound had happened, but I didn’t stop to ponder, because I was reading…. That evening, when my rancher grandmother said she had time now to read my book to me, I said, ‘Never mind, I already read it.’ A silence of adults, eyes meeting over my head. (p.23-24)
Blew starts attending school in 1949, at age 10. But by then “thanks to my valiant rancher grandmother, who drilled and drilled me” she was already proficient at arithmetic and spelling and was a voracious reader. She had also learned things that are more difficult to make into a syllabus–the sort of ineffable things one can only learn on farms from doing hard work, from watching crops fail and animals die, from spending countless hours outdoors alone.
As I read through Blew’s memoir the dual themes of independent reading and ranch life strike me as the real home schooling she received. Unlike many children today whose lives are scripted and managed by the hyper-parenting against which so many books rail, Blew’s independent spirit and strong authorial voice, not to mention some of the character flaws to which she readily admits, have been deeply formed by these early experiences. As I read Blew’s accounts of her adult life there is much in her experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but a little bit more unplugged solitude surrounded by books and a hefty dose of nature would surely be salutary for all.
The deeper meaning of Blew’s narrative, however, is historical. Blew’s childhood was not the product of deliberate choices by parents looking to guard against nature deficit or to prepare their girl to be the college professor she would eventually become. Quite to the contrary. Blew’s book is one in a long line of memoirs whose stories collectively point to the unintended consequences of literacy. Blew’s parents wanted her to be a rancher and rural schoolteacher up until the time she married and started having children. But that day when she first figured out how to read a fourth-grade geography book was the first step that would lead her eventually to the world of the modern woman. Her leap demonstrates in miniature what was happening all across the country.
In an interview about the material that would eventually become this book Blew says that she would never have predicted an American west with gated enclaves, high fashion, or people walking around with cell phones glued to their ears. Ironically perhaps, the forces that allowed her to eventually become a successful writer and English professor are the same forces that have eliminated the kind of rural ranching life that gave Blew the drive and experiences that have made her career. Today’s parents have to make a conscious effort to try to get their children to have some of the experiences Blew had as a matter of course. No matter how hard they try, it simply cannot be the same.