Described by many critics as “a modern Annie Oakley,” Pam Houston was born in New Jersey but spent much of her childhood in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The only child of an actress and unsuccessful businessman, her childhood was filled with parental alcoholism and physical abuse and unmet expectations. Her father wanted her to become a tennis star; her mother wanted her to be thin and perfectly made-up. Houston wanted to be neither.
When Houston was two and a half years old, her baby-sitter encouraged her to learn to read and write. This became a means of escape from a childhood often fraught with great danger, including sixteen car accidents (once with each of her parents) in as many years of age. Houston graduated second in her class with a degree in English from Denison University in Granville, Ohio. In 1992 she married (and later divorced) a South African safari guide, Mike Elkington. Later, she received a Ph.D. from the University of Utah.
Because she spent much of her childhood afraid for her personal safety, Houston claims her attraction to dangerous white-water rafting and emotionally withdrawn cowboy types was a response to feelings of fear and lack of control as a child and a way of returning to an unfortunate but familiar lifestyle. Her work as a hunting and rafting guide in the American West and Alaska forms the basis for most of her literary work.