SUSAN LANG is the author of a trilogy published by University of Nevada Press about a woman homesteading in the southwestern wilderness during the years 1929 to 1941. The first novel in the trilogy, Small Rocks Rising, won the 2003 Willa Award. Her second novel, Juniper Blue, was released in 2006 and the third, Moon Lily, in fall, 2008. Lang’s short stories and poems have been published in magazines such as Red Rock Review, Iris, and The Idaho Review. She was awarded a 2007 Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts for her novel-in-progress, The Sawtooth Complex. Presently Faculty Emeritus at Yavapai College, she founded and directed the Southwest Writers Series at Prescott College for 25 years. She was also founding director of the Hassayampa Institute.
Places and characters in Small Rocks Rising and Juniper Blue are largely modeled on those I knew growing up in a Southwestern canyon nearly as wild as the one depicted in the works. Ruth herself is a composite of the women I found around me, especially strong on aspects of my mother, and the events that befall Ruth stay true to the stories of life in the Southwest at that time. The isolated canyon where I was raised was the place my mother had staked a 160-acre homestead claim just after 1930, long before I was born. My mother, quite unconventional for her time, had homesteaded by herself, rather than as someone’s wife. Others in the area had of course been part of the homestead movement, though few staked claims in an area as wild as my mother’s. My mother had left her canyon at the end of the thirties to live in Hollywood with her new husband. She found herself terribly unhappy away from the place she loved and, after I was born in 1941, we spent every spring, summer, and fall living there in a large army tent (her original cabin had burned after she left), while my father worked in the city and drove the 135 miles every few weeks to bring us fresh fruit and staples. When I was three years old, we all moved back to the canyon full-time. We stayed in the tent for two years while we built another one-room structure, later joined by a small “kitchen” structure. During this time, we hauled water from a spring on the mountain until we could get it piped down to our new cabin. Electricity never came to the canyon (thank goodness) but eventually we put in butane that we used for lighting and for cooking during the winter. During the spring, summer, and fall, we cooked on a campfire and on Cookie, a small wooden stove in our yard. Rather than teaching me to bake bread, Mother taught me to track, kill, and skin animals for food. The only creatures that we killed other than for food were rattlesnakes—and sometimes we even ate them (although we usually had goats, chickens, geese, horses, and occasionally a cow). My mother had many stories of her homestead days to tell, and she told them well. Her friends had stories too, and I remember listening to these stories as my mother and her friends sat out under the pinyon on summer afternoons, or around the campfire in the evening with campfire coffee or a few beers. I learned a lot about point-of-view that way, hearing the same story told in entirely different ways, depending on who was doing the telling. For my first three years of school, I attended a one-room schoolhouse in Pioneertown, eight miles down the rut road. My father found work there “ageing” the new buildings that Hollywood was constructing to simulate a frontier town. Pioneertown was the location for many Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Cisco Kid, and Annie Oakley episodes, and I was watching television and movies being filmed long before I understood what movies were. It seemed odd to me to hear these men repeat the same words again and again, to see the same pretend fist-fights and shoot-outs over and over. I remember being photographed on Roy Rogers’s lap and sitting on Gene Autry’s sorrel, not knowing who these men were exactly, but seeing that others thought they were important. And they seemed nice enough to me—even if they were “city slickers” with makeup on. I knew what the real stories of the area were, what it was really like to live there when the place was still wild. And it was my knowledge of these stories that finally germinated into the trilogy of Small Rocks Rising, Juniper Blue, and Moon Lily. The novels, of course, are fiction and not a documented history of the place. These works are a re-imagining of the area in past times based on the stories I heard under the pinyon and around the campfires. Even the geography has been altered slightly to match the re-imaging and to stay true to the spirit of the place that has taken up residence within me. A place as much a part of me as my own blood and bones.