Summary and book reviews of Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt

Breaking Clean

A Memoir

by Judy Blunt

Breaking Clean
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2002, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2003, 320 pages

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Book Summary

Blunt has turned the memories of her childhood and young adulthood in rural Montana into a beautifully written memoir that is a meditation on how land and her life will always be intertwined. A must read.

Born into a third generation of Montana homesteaders, Judy Blunt learned early how to "rope and ride and jockey a John Deere," but also to "bake bread and can vegetables and reserve my opinion when the men were talking." The lessons carried her through thirty-six-hour blizzards, devastating prairie fires and a period of extreme isolation that once threatened the life of her infant daughter. But though she strengthened her survival skills in what was--and is--essentially a man's world, Blunt's story is ultimately that of a woman who must redefine herself in order to stay in the place she loves.

Breaking Clean is at once informed by the myths of the West and powerful enough to break them down. Against formidable odds, Blunt has found a voice original enough to be called classic.

I rarely go back to the ranch where I was born or to the neighboring land where I bore the fourth generation of a ranching family. My people live where hardpan and sagebrush flats give way to the Missouri River Breaks, a country so harsh and wild and distant that it must grow its own replacements, as it grows its own food, or it will die. Hereford cattle grow slick and mean foraging along the cutbanks for greasewood shoots and buffalo grass. Town lies an hour or more north over gumbo roads. Our town was Malta, population 2,500, county seat of Phillips County, Montana, and the largest settlement for nearly one hundred miles in any direction.

"Get tough," my father snapped as I dragged my feet at the edge of a two-acre potato field. He gave me a gunnysack and started me down the rows pulling the tough fanweed that towered over the potato plants. I was learning then the necessary lessons of weeds and seeds and blisters. My favorite story as a child was of how I fainted in the garden ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The first chapter of Breaking Clean offers a preview of Blunt’s story, touching on some of the major turning points in her life. In what ways do the descriptions of her mother [p. 5], the conversation between her father and John [pp. 6–7], and the account of the marriage counseling session [pp. 9–10] establish the framework for the autobiography as a whole? What insights does this chapter give you into the varied, often contradictory, emotions Blunt feels in telling her story? For example, in describing her impatience with her children, why does Blunt say, "For a moment I’m terrified I’ll slip and tell them to get tough" [p. 4]?

  2. What does the account of Blunt’s family history [pp. 17–18] reveal about ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

National Geographic Adventure

[Blunt] writes without remorse, without flinching, striking matches off the scuffed soles of her feelings. When a writer can do that–make it real and make it matter–the world comes almost painfully alive.

Book

Blunt's writing offers the flip side of the West–a land of blinding blizzards, uncontrolled fires, loveless marriages and rampant sexism. . . . There is little about it that doesn't ring completely true.

The San Francisco Chronicle - Miriam Wolf

[Judy Blunt] has turned the memories of her childhood and young adulthood into a beautifully written memoir that is a meditation on how land and her life will always be intertwined .

The Washington Post - Bill McKibben

Staunch and unblinking. . . . If there is a trace of sentimentality [in Breaking Clean] I couldn't find it, which is why this book is such a valuable addition to the literature of place and the literature of passage.

Los Angeles Times

In Breaking Clean, Blunt strikes a delightfully tense, unsteady balance and . . . like an accomplished bucking bronco rider . . . masterfully maintains it throughout a wild-ride of a memoir.

Time Out New York

Riveting . . . In its precise, arresting descriptions of a working farm and its careful re-creation of how Blunt ultimately came to break free, this masterful debut is utterly strange, suspenseful and surprising.

Elle

[An] astonishing literary debut, a dramatic and heartbreaking memoir.

Booklist

Hopefully, Blunt will keep honing her keen and poetic awareness, steely candor, and commanding storytelling skills and continue telling the true story of women in the West.

Kirkus Reviews

No biographical sketch of Blunt can convey the depth of this literary achievement. Each of the 13 sections here stands on its own substantial, powerful segments of writing organized around some larger theme.

Publishers Weekly

In this world without TV or books, with mail once a week at best, a good story rose to the surface of conversation like heavy cream. Blunt's own story is so rich and genuine, readers will clean their plates and ask for seconds.

BookPage

City slickers take heed here's the real lowdown on the ranching life–from a woman's perspective. Judy blunt's new memoir Breaking Clean debunks the romance surrounding the American West's most archetypal way of life.

Author Blurb James Crumley, author of The Last Good Kiss
A memoir with the fierce narrative force of an eastern Montana blizzard, rich in story and character, filled with the bone-chilling details of Blunt's childhood. She writes without bitterness, with an abiding love of the land and the work and her family and friends that she finally left behind, at great sacrifice, to begin to write. This is a magnificent achievement, a book for the ages. I've never read anything that compares with it.

Author Blurb Pete Fromm, author of Indian Creek Chronicles
With a voice so authentic she seems to have grown up out of the ground itself, Judy Blunt gives us the true West, swept clear of the long haze of myth. Breaking Clean is a stunner, an incredible story told by a writer of unbelievable skill.

Author Blurb Ivan Doig, author of This House of Sky
One's own life into words is perhaps the most daunting geography a writer ever faces. But swooping into moments of her own past as if by sorcery, Judy Blunt in these harrowing pages of life as a young ranch wife on the Montana Highline memorably comes to terms with an old and hard horizon.

Author Blurb William Kittredge, author of The Nature of Generosity
Judy Blunt lived in a beloved country among beloved people. She grew up knowing blizzards and good horses, working cattle all day and then getting dinner on the table, impassable roads to town and babies with raging fevers--a resolute country girl who became a ranch wife on the shortgrass plains of Montana. And she tells of leaving, the price of insisting on her right to fashion her own life. Breaking Clean is vivid and compelling, a classical American memoir.

Reader Reviews

GAIL SADLER

Wow! I couldn't put it down, even when it hurt. It was more than a picture painted with words, it was gripping and real.

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