Style and Technique

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The story opens with a general overview of the history and lineage of the Wyoming family, then describes the particular events and ideas linked to the general opening. Proulx packs a lot of information into a short amount of space, but the background information allows for the themes to be carried out in a deeply meaningful way because readers can see and appreciate the biological and sociological connections inherent to the characterization and plot.

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Proulx’s story makes infrequent but effective use of dialogue. There is some exchange between Mero and his niece, who informs him of Rollo’s death. There is also effective use of dialogue in the flashback memories when the narrator of those flashbacks converses with Mero.

Proulx’s use of flashback reveals a stream of consciousness within Mero, and it is strikingly effective for a story about an old man driving across country on such an occasion. People tend to recall things not frequently thought of when driving along and feeling the hypnotic rhythm of the tires meeting the pavement. This phenomenon is certainly accentuated when people are traveling to a funeral, where introspection and contemplation of one’s time and place in the world are significantly pronounced.

The author also uses the story-within-a-story technique (one story in the present and the other in memory), with the effect that one story foils the other. In the end, Mero’s unfinished business is not unrelated to Tin Head’s unfinished business. Proulx then unifies the two stories by the mythic symbol suggested by the half-skinned steer. The animal in the flashback exists in myth and legend, and when Mero dies at the end of his journey, the same steer is following him. The wounded animal is a bloody reminder of the consequences of unfinished business and of the violent and vindictive qualities of living and dying. The glaring red eye suggests the human inability to escape fate. The transitory nature of life and the certainty of death are confirmed by the animal’s all-seeing presence.

The journey theme seems to be a postmodern odyssey in which an apparently self-satisfied, estranged brother attempts to redeem his absence from his brother’s life by making a problematic cross-country journey. The end of Mero’s travels indicates the ultimate passing of life into death.

The journey also reverses the direction of the archetypal westward movement. Especially in the American frontier, the movement has been from the civilized east to the untamed west. In this story, the journey opposes that formula, with Mero leaving home and traveling east to establish his identity.

Proulx employs what might be described as a brutal lyricism by her word usage and imagery. The implied beauty of the landscape is terrifying and unforgiving. She is sometimes innovative, using language harshly to parallel her harsh themes, as in the following constructions: “dotting around on a cane,” “goggling at her bloody bitten fingers,” “the damnedest curl to his hat brim,” “twitched the wheel,” and “sheeted off him like water.”

Historical Context

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Nutritional Awareness in the 1990s
In 1990, the United States Congress passed the monumental Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which required most foods to include a standardized information label. As a testament to the public interest in this issue, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), one of two government organizations charged with implementing the act, received an unprecedented forty thousand comments from various individuals and groups. Still, nutritionists and many industry groups supported the new labels. By 1993, the regulations had been finalized, and over the next year, various manufacturers changed their labels. The new labels, entitled Nutrition Facts, listed a variety of information about a package of food, including standardized, realistic serving sizes and information on how the food fit into an overall daily diet. Raw meat and poultry products were one of the exceptions that did not require these packaging labels. In 1997, the Clinton administration acknowledged the success and consumer- friendliness of the food label by awarding it a Presidential Design Achievement Award.

In the 1990s, the government also revised the four food groups model of nutrition that it had used to educate the public for decades. While many nutritionists were in favor of the new model, it met with resistance from groups like the meat and dairy industries, which stood to lose business. In the four food groups model, emphasis was placed on the consumption of meat and dairy products. However, the new Food Guide Pyramid, which was eventually adopted in 1992 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), diminished the importance of meats and dairy products in one’s diet. In this new model, the original four food groups were expanded into six new categories, then arranged on a hierarchical pyramid. Meats and dairy products were located near the top, or least recommended, part of the pyramid.

The Fear of Diseased Beef
Besides the controversy over the nutritional value of meat, the meat industry and the general public had to deal with the serious prospect of diseased beef. In the 1980s in England, an epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a brain disorder commonly known as mad cow disease, killed more than 140,000 cows. Little is known about this class of diseases, which includes Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rare disorder that occurs in humans. However, enough was suspected about CJD and its link to BSE to cause a widespread panic in 1996. When several humans in England died of a new variant of CJD known as nvCJD, many people assumed that the disease was being transmitted through an English beef supply infected with BSE. As a result, the European Union banned the export of British beef from 1996 to 1999. Scientists proposed ideas about ways the bovine disease could get passed to humans, and one possibility became the dominant theory. The British cattle industry, like other countries, had long used a high-protein cattle feed made, in part, from the ground-up carcasses of other cows. If only one of these source animals had BSE, its disease could be transmitted to any cow that ate the feed.

The issue came to a head in the United States on April 16, 1996, when popular talk-show host Oprah Winfrey had invited Howard Lyman, an ex-rancher, onto her show. Lyman spoke about the possibility of a mad cow disease outbreak in U.S. cattle, since American ranchers were using similar protein feeds with their cattle. Winfrey was shocked to find out that naturally vegetarian animals like cows were being turned into meat-eaters and cannibals and said that she would never eat another hamburger. A year later, a group of Texas cattlemen claimed that Winfrey’s remarks were responsible for a sharp drop in revenue following the 1996 broadcast and filed a multimillion-dollar defamation suit against the talk show host, the show’s production and distribution companies, and Lyman. Jurors ruled in Winfrey’s favor, saying that she did not maliciously hurt the beef industry with her comments. As a result of the increased exposure of this issue, however, the FDA issued new rules that banned most protein feeds made from ground-up animals. To this date, no case of mad cow disease or nvCJD has been reported in the United States.

Literary Style

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‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer’’ takes place in Wyoming, a setting that is crucial to the story’s plot. Mero spends his life running away from his past, which he associates with Wyoming and the hardness of ranching life. However, Mero’s physical journey from Massachusetts to Wyoming also prompts him to remember his past. As he gets closer to Wyoming and the ranch where he grew up, the setting affects him. He tries to beat the harsh weather and his lack of luck, using the calmness and confi- dence that he has built up during his sixty years away from Wyoming. However, he is unable to do so and dies in the process. As he is dying, the story about Tin Head and the half-skinned steer, told by his father’s girlfriend, comes back to haunt him; he sees some cattle and hallucinates about one steer in particular: ‘‘It tossed its head, and in the howling, wintry light he saw he’d been wrong again, that the half-skinned steer’s red eye had been watching for him all this time.’’ Mero associates his troubled Wyoming past with the steer from the woman’s story. As a result, he imagines death as the halfskinned steer.

Proulx is known for her striking imagery, and this story does not fail in this regard. The vivid images in this story come in many forms, and they collectively evoke a sense of harshness, decay, and violence. The Wyoming setting is depicted as an unforgiving land, where cattle die in many horrible ways and where ‘‘the wind packed enough sand to scour windshields opaque.’’ When Mero takes the anthropologist to see the Native-American drawings, they travel along cliffs ‘‘ridged with ledges darkened by millennia of raptor feces.’’ People are also depicted with gritty, unflattering imagery. Mero’s father has a ‘‘gangstery face,’’ with a ‘‘crushed rodeo nose and scar-crossed eyebrows’’ and a ‘‘stub ear.’’ When Mero gets pulled over, the traffic offi- cer is described as ‘‘a pimpled, mustached specimen with mismatched eyes.’’ Finally, many events are described with expressive, often violent, imagery. When Louise tells Mero how his brother was clawed to death by an emu, she says that he ‘‘tried to fight it off with his cane, but it laid him open from belly to breakfast.’’ This pathetic image of a feeble old man being ripped apart by a wild animal underscores the savage quality of the story. However, the most savage descriptions are those of cattle slaughter: ‘‘He ties up the back legs, hoists it up and sticks it, shoves the tub under to catch the blood. When it’s bled out pretty good, he lets it down and starts skinning it.’’ Proulx continues, going into excruciatingly vivid detail about how a steer is skinned. She maximizes the shock value of this image when she describes what the half-skinned steer looks like after it escapes: ‘‘It looks raw and it’s got something bunchy and wet hanging down over its hindquarters.’’

Proulx includes several clues that foreshadow, or predict, the death of Mero. These clues often come in the form of events that go wrong. From the beginning, Mero is depicted as a strong, confident person who expects that everything will go his way and who feels that he can control any situation. However, events do not go as planned, and Mero steadily loses control over everything. Road construction affects his schedule, and he speeds to make up the time, getting a ticket in the process. The strain of his memories starts to affect him on the journey, making his mind feel ‘‘withered and punky.’’ His lack of mental awareness causes him to get into an accident. This is a particularly significant clue for the reader that the story may have a tragic ending, since Mero told Louise in the beginning that he has ‘‘never had an accident in his life.’’ His mental condition continues to deteriorate as he is unable to find the healthy food he usually eats. As a result of his famished and weary condition, he breaks one window in his car, his only shelter.

Proulx also foreshadows Mero’s death with explicit references to death and misfortune. In the beginning, Mero gets the news that his brother has been clawed to death by an emu, a fate that Mero thinks he could avoid in similar circumstances: ‘‘He flexed his muscular arms, bent his knees, thought he could dodge an emu.’’ Also, in the flashback to the story about the half-skinned steer, Mero’s father’s girlfriend explains that Tin Head is cursed for life after he botches the skinning of the steer. The placement of this particular flashback is important, since it happens right before Mero breaks the window of his car, thus sealing his tragic fate.

Media Adaptations

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The Shipping News was adapted as a feature film by Miramax Films and released in 2001. The film was directed by Lasse Hallström and featured an all-star cast, including Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, and Scott Glenn. It is available on VHS and DVD from Buena Vista Home Video.

The Shipping News was also adapted as an abridged audiobook in 1995 and is available on four audiocassettes. The audiobook was re-released in 2001 in a special compact-disc format that coincided with the film’s release. Both versions are produced by Simon & Schuster Audio and are read by Robert Joy.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bakopoulos, Dean, ‘‘Woes of the West,’’ in Progressive, Vol. 63, No. 9, September 1999, p. 43.

Glover, Charlotte L., Review of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, in Library Journal, Vol. 124, No. 8, May 1, 1999, p. 115.

Kowalewski, Michael, ‘‘Losing Our Place: A Review Essay,’’ in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter 2001, p. 242.

McGraw, Erin, ‘‘Brute Force: Violent Stories,’’ in Georgia Review, Vol. 54, No. 2, Summer 2000, p. 351.

Moore, John Noell, ‘‘The Landscape of Fiction,’’ in English Journal, Vol. 90, No. 1, September 2000, p. 146.

Proulx, Annie, ‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer,’’ in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, pp. 754–68.

Review of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, in Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1999.

Review of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 13, March 29, 1999, p. 91.

Rood, Karen L., Understanding Annie Proulx, University of South Carolina Press, 2001, pp. 154–57.

Rubin, Merle, ‘‘Cowboy Country,’’ in Christian Science Monitor, June 3, 1999, p. 20.

Seaman, Donna, Review of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, in Booklist, Vol. 95, No. 14, March 15, 1999, p. 1261.

Further Reading
Barnard, Neal, Food for Life: How the New Four Food Groups Can Save Your Life, 1993, reprint, Crown, 1994. In the story, Mero thinks that his vegetarian diet will help him postpone his death. Dr. Barnard also thinks that vegetarianism can increase life expectancy and advocates selecting foods from four food groups: grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits. This system mimics the structure of the four food groups model endorsed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) prior to 1992, but changes the actual groups (eliminating meat).

Carlson, Laurie Winn, Cattle: An Informal Social History, Ivan R. Dee, 2001. This engaging and informative book examines the history of cattle in various eras and cultures, offering many anecdotes in the process. In addition to a study of the animal itself, Carlson also discusses the beef and dairy industries and the current controversies over safe methods of food production.

Lyman, Howard F., Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat, Scribner, 1998. Lyman’s 1996 comments on The Oprah Winfrey Show about shocking, unsafe practices in the meat industry drew fire from a group of Texas cattlemen, resulting in a high-profile lawsuit. In his book, Lyman, a former cattle rancher, chronicles his journey from carnivore to vegetarian, gives an inside view of the meat and dairy industries, and discusses the potential for an epidemic of mad cow disease in American cattle.

Pflughoft, Fred, Wyoming: Wild and Beautiful, American World Geographic, 1999. In her story, Proulx describes Wyoming’s landscapes in striking detail. In his book, Fred Pflughoft, a western photographer, depicts the state’s landscapes with more than 120 full-color images from all four seasons. Pflughoft’s photos include a variety of famous and obscure locations, including national parks, deserts, rock formations, canyons, lakes, rivers, and streams.

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