Wolf Willow is a personal memoir by Wallace Stegner, whose fiction and non-fiction writings capture a deep sense of the western places he called home during the early part of his life. The book takes its title from a willow particular to the Cypress Hills, the area of southern Saskatchewan where Stegner spent part of his early years. Unlike many memoirists and fiction writers from small, rural towns, Stegner writes not as one who was cynical and embitterered by the experience. Rather, he recognizes the conditions of the place, physical and otherwise, that shaped both the strengths and the limitations of its people.
The first part of the book chronicles the period before the town he lived in, Whitemud, was settled. He gives us deeply evocative descriptions of the topography of the place, the peoples native to the area, and the defining event of drawing the national boundary between the US and Canada along the 49th parallel (called the Medicine line). We learn of the different tribes, the metis, who were half-breed traders, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who pacified the area in a very different way than the American Cavalry and the transition from buffalo to cattle herds.
The middle section of the book does something novel for a memoir. Stegner inserts a fictional account of the terrible winter of 1906, that more or less marked the end of cattle ranching. The account is absolutely riveting, the majority of which is narrated by a greenhorn cowboy who joins up to herd the cattle through the winter. As the terrible cold and blizzards set in we see the gradual transition from trying to save the herd to physical survival of the men.
The final part of the book chronicles the settling of Whitemud after this terrible winter, and the attempts at turning the area into an agricultural Eden. In the end, Stegner’s family fails to do so, as did many others as they slammed up against the hard reality of insufficient rainfall west of the 100th meridian where their land was located.
In the epilogue, we are reminded that the book began with a return visit to Whitemud by Stegner. We see a remarkable portrait of town father Corky Jones, and the strengths and struggles and limits of this rural community. And we see Stegner’s appreciation for how this community shaped him, even though he and his family couldn’t remain.
This book is one more reason I consider Stegner as one of this country’s great writers of “place”, along with Wendell Berry. Most of us just live in places. What both Stegner and Berry do is help us understand places and how they help shape the lives of the people in those places, perhaps challenging us to begin to notice our own places and how they shape us.