Although I like the way Joel and Ethan Coen try to circumvent the scandal of standing toe to toe with John Wayne’s ghost (might as well be Jesus) by emphasizing that their True Grit isn’t a remake but a literary adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, I’d like to take a crack at measuring the Coens’ 2010 effort against the 1969 True Grit anyway.

DH: I’ve just let Laura Bell’s memoir of her nearly 30 years in the West reluctantly out of my hands. Claiming Ground has been published by Knopf, edited by Gary Fisketjon, whose master’s touch is glowing in quiet understatement on every page.

What I can imagine about the West from my pocket suburb on the East Coast had been nurtured by three writers: Jim LynchRon Carlson and Jonathan Evison. JE’s friendships know no geographical barriers. I’ve been fortunate enough to interview all of them on Three Guys.

But somehow it was Laura Bell who gave me the West in my mind’s eye. We first meet her as a Wyoming sheepherder in the late 70’s. It’s an isolating life…isolating by design. There’s a tension about Laura that you have to figure out for yourself. It’s a swing in temperament between a strongly felt independence and a savage isolationism. One sheepherder’s social highlight for the year is going to the dentist.

Laura’s even-tempered prose got to me in a slow learning curve. As a reader, I’m not sure how much of her descriptive artistry I’m picking up in all the talk about trails, mountains and valleys. This is a world where your dogs or your horse become people for you because you don’t see anyone else for a week.

And it’s a world where part of your job is to notice when a cow looks confused and is in trouble. This is totally exotic for me, for most city types.

But when she described something that I could relate more directly to, I realized what a sterling silver wordsmith Laura Bell was. There’s a late night scene when Laura’s in bed with her boyfriend. In warm summer, the night breeze sucks the curtain into the screen window. It’s the writer’s genius for the right detail at the right time, whether that’s on the trail or in a bedroom with your lover.

Claiming Ground, perfectly titled to express the beating heart of this memoir, is tripartite  in construction. In the second part, we have moved on to the 80’s with Laura trying to re-establish connections beyond her wilderness world of sheep, dogs and socially misfit range hands. The results are quite rocky. Will her isolating, anti-social side win out? The third part of the story will show you if a humane resolution is possible, if Laura can find a way to be herself.

There’s a great portrait of a librarian in this book who visits ten counties in turn, re-distributing books in small town libraries, making sure that everyone has a chance to appreciate what literature has to offer through an exchange of books that’s also an exchange of friendship.

Reminds me of JE and his exchanges of books among friends. He is always encouraging exchanges of books and friendships as if they were the same thing. Maybe this is a Western thing and on the East Coast we just buy our own.

In Laura Bell’s  sheepherders trailer, there’s a packed bookshelf rigged above her bed. Books are precious in this world. Laura and her friends read them aloud to each other. I’m asking Laura Bell for a guest post in our WWFFIN series about the books that writers love…now that the West has a new essential memoir to put on that shelf.