In her poignant memoir Narrow River, Wide Sky, Jenny Forrester unflinchingly shares the gritty details of what she calls her “American trailer trash Republican childhood” in rural Colorado, and the serpentine path she takes to escape the violence that defined her youth.
Most other books on rural poverty published during the rise of Donald Trump have focused on Appalachia or the Deep South (J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash). But Forrester tackles life in the American West.
Forrester was born in the Vail Valley, down valley from the famous ski resort, the daughter of a conservative ski-patroller father and a God-fearing teacher mother. She and her younger brother were frequently subjected to their father’s corporal punishment. Forrester was a delicate, sensitive child, deeply affected by the ruthless way her father dispatched problem kittens, problem birds … problem anything.
Eventually, her mother took the children and left, moving to a trailer in Mancos, Colo., a small town of roughly 1,000 people in the rural southwestern corner of the state.
“Mancos was haven to Mormon fundamentalists and the Second Amendment in cross stitch and engravings and everyone in closets and no privacy and artists as painters of old Western motifs and children of belt-smacking parents and violence as love,” Forrester writes. “Mancos was knowing who’s in town, who’s leaving town, and who’ll never come back. Mancos was wanting more and also wanting nothing to do with the outside world. Mancos was belonging to mythology through genetics or land.”
Forrester refrains from dissecting rural Western poverty, declining to analyze it or draw conclusions. Instead, she lays out the bleak facts of life: Her single mother raised two children in a trailer in a small town. Sometimes, they ran out of food. In Mancos, with its ethos of militant self-sufficiency, there was a stigma about accepting food stamps and other “government handouts.”
The lack of opportunity in places like the Vail Valley and Mancos is especially stark, given their proximity to expensive ski resorts, where the glitterati jet into Vail or Telluride. There’s a Colorado dynamic of ski town versus down valley, Front Range versus Western Slope, along with the broader conflicts that define the West—urban versus rural, city folk versus ranchers. It’s not unlike the dynamic here in the Coachella Valley, where some of the poorest parts of California are just a short drive away from the riches of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells and La Quinta.
“We were always facing drought—fire on the roadside; parched, dead animals; dust because of Denver and industry and pollution and all of the other people living on the Front Range, east of the Continental Divide. They always had to have enough. There were more of them. That’s how we saw it,” Forrester writes. “That Continental Divide splits Colorado in so many ways.”
Forrester and her brother, Brian, drift apart ideologically as they age, almost despite themselves. They embody the nationwide trend of the past three decades, with its drastically polarized political and cultural landscape. Jenny embraces feminism and moves from small-town Mancos to Phoenix and then Portland, Ore. Brian marries into a Western Slope ranching family and is born again as a Baptist, beginning a travelling ministry with his wife. Jenny and Brian’s wife have a family-straining blowout argument over abortion and religion.
Though Forrester doesn’t shy from those taboo subjects—religion and politics—Narrow River, Wide Sky is just as much about the struggles women face while simply living: sexual assault, peer pressure, drug use, depression and death.
Ultimately, she’s writing about violence against women. A young vegetarian is forced to go on hunting expeditions so her mom’s boyfriends can use her hunting tag. Boys demand sex but won’t wear condoms. There’s the violence of an abortion without money for painkillers, the fear of stalker ex-boyfriends—slapping and punched walls, textbooks slammed on the floor at school. Through it all, Forrester doggedly survives. Her resilience and hope shine from the pages. Her fiery spirit comes through her spare, deliberate prose.
Her husband takes her to the Salt River outside Phoenix, and she has a revelation:
We sat listening to the water between the stones and along the sand. I started to remember again rivers and where I’d come from after spending so much time and emotion on forgetting what I’d been and learned and forgetting what I’d fought against without knowing why. I’d been pushing memory away. … The Salt River, a stream most of the time in the Sonoran Desert, whispered to me to return to the source of what no drug, no man, no circumstance can kill.
But in the end, Forrester leaves the Southwest, walking away from juniper and piñon pine, from rusty rainbow-colored mesas and the Milky Way shining in the clear night sky. She flows away from the waters of the Dolores, is washed clean in the waters of the Salt, and comes to rest in the crisp clear waters where the Willamette and the Columbia meet under tall Northwest pines. No matter how deep the trauma, no matter how long it has lasted, it is possible to be cleansed and start anew.
This review originally ran in High Country News.
Narrow River, Wide Sky: A Memoir
By Jenny Forrester
237 pages, $18.95