Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gretel Ehrlich challenges serious myths concerning gender and its relationship to the American West in the twelve essays that constitute The Solace of Open Spaces. Instead of positing the West as a man’s world in which men have all the power and are separated from the women’s domain of home and family, Ehrlich depicts tough, capable women who are working outside the home. Most women, including Ehrlich herself, work along with the men and pull their own weight, even in the midst of personal tragedy, by adopting typically masculine qualities.

On the one hand, this book is like a typical collection of essays in that each piece is an individual unit existing independently of the others. Each essay resonates with its own artistry. Each manifests its own distinct tone, subject matter, and point of view. Each stands wonderfully on its own. On the other hand, Ehrlich also brings the essays together into a single work that clearly has a unifying story and set of thematic concerns. She mentions more than once in the preface that the book is a “narrative” and that the accumulation of essays chronicles her relationship to Wyoming, first as a place to make a documentary film on sheepherders, then as a place to mourn the death of her lover, then as a place to live and work, and finally as a place to discover and consummate another love relationship. Seen in this way, each essay relies on the others for the telling of Ehrlich’s Wyoming experience, and...

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The Solace of Open Spaces Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Gretel Ehrlich has written several works of fiction and poetry, The Solace of Open Spaces, her first collection of essays, has been her most well-received work to date. The book won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and several individual essays from it have been anthologized. The Solace of Open Spaces fits into a literary tradition that is often referred to as nature writing. Although this tradition is profoundly male, epitomized by the works of well-known writers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Edward Abbey, many women have also written nonfictional accounts of their relationships with nature. In the nineteenth century, women such as Margaret Fuller and Celia Thaxter, both of whom are little known today, wrote what could be called nature writing. In the twentieth century, writers such as Mary Austin, Rachel Carson, and Annie Dillard have also, like Ehrlich, depicted themselves as women who understand both the beauties and dangers in nature and who thrive when in contact with the natural world. Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, though not as spiritual as Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), as politicized as Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), or as overtly feminist as Austin’s The Land of Little Rain (1903), fits solidly into this growing tradition of women writing about nature. This tradition can and probably should be looked at in conjunction with and also apart from the mainstream tradition of nature writing by men, if only to investigate the possible differences between the two.

The Solace of Open Spaces is an important book for several reasons, including the beauty of its language. Essays such as “The Solace of Open Spaces,” “The Smooth Skull of Winter,” and “A Storm, the Cornfield, and Elk,” with their surprising images, sparse sentences, alliteration, and metaphors, read more like poetry than what is usually thought of as essayistic prose.

Since the publication of The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich has been working on other nature essays, some of which have been collected in her second collection of essays, Islands, The Universe, Home (1991). Ehrlich’s other books include Geode Rock Body (1970), To Touch the Water (1981), City Tales, Wyoming Stories (1986, coauthored with essayist Edward Hoagland), Heart Mountain (1988), and Drinking Dry Clouds (1991).

The Solace of Open Spaces

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Few people would search for solace in the open spaces of northern Wyoming, the wind-blasted ranges or rolling hill country that sustains only grazing sheep, sheepherders, and some scattered tenacious ranchers. Fewer still, like Gretel Ehrlich, would abandon the sophisticated New York literary scene she well knew in order to discover this lonely solace. In 1976 she went to Wyoming to make a film, and stayed there. At that time her former world was already collapsing. She had recently mourned the death of a lover and now, disoriented, she “had the experience of waking up not knowing where I was, whether I was a man or woman, or which toothbrush was mine.” The solitude of Wyoming, the bleak and vast horizons, seemed to fill her needs. Not at first did she experience a measure of healing from the open country, solace from pain, and the eventual reconstruction of a shattered life. In time, though, she did become whole, and her story, revealed in loosely connected essays, autobiographical impressions, and brief narratives, is one of spiritual adventure leading to sanity and renewed strength—even to ecstasy.

What sort of book is The Solace of Open Spaces? Although part of the genre of twentieth century travel literature, with its emphasis upon the writer’s exploration of “spirit of place,” Ehrlich’s book contrasts with representative genre works in two particulars: She does not aggressively search out this “spirit” in order to define her special nature, one that is revealed through her connection with the landscape, and she requires from the landscape only its healing powers, not its impulse toward power or grandeur. D. H. Lawrence’s travel books, in contrast—typical of travel literature as varied as books by C. M. Doughty, Lawrence Durrell, or Carlos Castañeda—explore both the place and the author’s state of mind: Place teaches the author how to assert himself; it magnifies his soul. Ehrlich’s work belongs to the sub-genre of the literature of retreat, in which the author remains passive in the face of elemental nature; the author does not learn powers of assertion but of spiritual regeneration. Ehrlich’s literary tradition has the paradigm of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and of such early twentieth century models as George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903) and Havelock Ellis’ Impressions and Comments (1914-1924, 1926). Like these writers, Ehrlich retreats from a complex and stressful society to discover simple principles of working (or resting) in consonance with nature. As such, The Solace of Open Spaces is that rare book: a secular meditative essay that teaches the art of living.

Above all, Ehrlich teaches the reader how to work and survive in the harsh Wyoming valleys and uplands. She became a working shepherd, later a sheep rancher; hers is not the account of a visiting journalist soaking up local color but of an immigrant who has determined to stay on the land. That land she knows well. Her first chapter describes in sharp images the...

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The Solace of Open Spaces Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Austin, Mary. The Land of Little Rain. 1903. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. A collection of essays about Southern California’s desert country which was published more than eighty years before The Solace of Open Spaces. Like Ehrlich, Austin concerns herself not only with the natural world but also with the people who live in a particular landscape, the communities of Piute and Shoshone Indians, Hispanic settlers, and turn-of-the-century miners.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. A collection of essays that has received more critical attention than any work of nature writing by a woman. Although Dillard’s essays are unquestionably more spiritual than Ehrlich’s, both writers cultivate a relationship with nature that is on their own terms, not on the terms that society might have prescribed for them.

Ehrlich, Gretel. “An Interview with Gretel Ehrlich.” Interview by James Wackett. North Dakota Quarterly 58 (Summer, 1990): 121. An interview in which Ehrlich talks about ranching, writing, rodeo, and her definition of the West. Some of the interview focuses specifically on her use of language in The Solace of Open Spaces.

Elbow, Peter. “The Pleasures of Voice in the Literary Essay: Explorations in the Prose of Gretel Ehrlich and Richard Selzer.” In Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy. Edited by Chris Anderson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. A critical essay that explores the concept of voice in nonfiction by using examples from Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces as well as from essayist Richard Selzer’s work. Elbow closely analyzes the first two paragraphs from Ehrlich’s text, arguing that their voice is rich and complex.

Glamour. LXXXIII, December, 1985, p. 192.

Hasselstrom, Linda. Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1991. A memoir comprising essays and poems, Hasselstrom’s depiction of her experiences on a South Dakota ranch interestingly complements Ehrlich’s own depiction of ranching experiences in The Solace of Open Spaces. Hasselstrom’s book, like Ehrlich’s, chronicles a woman’s grieving for a loved one killed by cancer.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, September 1, 1985, p. 928.

Library Journal. CX, November 1, 1985, p. 105.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, December 1, 1985, p. 41.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, October 25, 1985, p. 56.

Texas Monthly. XC, December 1, 1985, p. 41.

Time. CXXVII, January 6, 1986, p. 92.