In every dream home a heartache — Annie Proulx's 'Bird Cloud'
A review of Annie Proulx's "Bird Cloud," which recounts the building of a highly impractical dream home.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Annie Proulx
Scribner, 234 pp., $26
"Bird Cloud" is Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx's first foray into book-length nonfiction, if you don't count the how-to books she published under "E.A. Proulx" before her fiction career got started. And it's a peculiarly lumpy beast.
Its framing narrative concerns the building of what was supposed to be Proulx's "wonderfully private" hideaway on a rugged, wildlife-rich stretch of the North Platte River in southern Wyoming. "The property," she writes, "was beautiful and unique, remote and powerful, and I fell for it, hard."
That it had no nearby access to phone or electrical lines, that its water might not be potable, that it was accessible only by a one-lane dirt road — none of that mattered.
She was smitten.
"Bird Cloud," as she called the dream-home she plans to build on the place, "was to be a kind of poem if a house can be that."
What it seems to have been, instead, is Annie's Folly. It uses up all her available cash, and then some. And it makes you wonder if Proulx has a single ounce of common sense.
There's the $40,000 she spends to fix a custom-built floor that isn't to her liking. There are the tiles she falls for ("the color of the Atlantic Ocean in deep water, a liquid blue-green") that have to be flown in from Brazil, necessitating a construction delay of many months.
And then there's her garden project: "I became enamored of an Italian seed company and bought too many packets of seeds that needed a Mediterranean climate."
Proulx's excesses in this vein are the last thing you'd expect from the author of three volumes of hard-edged Wyoming stories. (The title of the most recent, "Fine Just the Way It Is," seems especially ironic in the light of "Bird Cloud.") Her decision to publish this account of her extravagance when so many Americans are losing their homes seems in dubious taste, too.
The clincher comes when she belatedly discovers her new house is "inaccessible to wheeled vehicles in snowy winters," leaving her "semihomeless" for half the year.
While most of the book concerns construction details and wranglings with architects and contractors, there are a few chapters, shoehorned in, on other topics. Her look at her itinerant family background hints at why she would go so overboard in building such an impractical home away from home. She also delves into the Native American and pioneer history behind her 640 acres.
A long chapter on local bird life (complete with bird-feeder battles) addresses environmental concerns. And Proulx's powers of description, as always, can be formidable. Here's her account of insect-hungry swallows in flight: "Knots of bird exploded, coalesced, twisted in ribbons, doubled and slid sideways, mounted in loose circles, became winged bobbins hurtling through a random warp of mosquitoes."
The last twist in Proulx's story isn't, oddly, included in the book.
Bird Cloud Ranch is now for sale — for $3.7 million.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org
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