Virginia Mendenhall, a Quaker from North Carolina, is thirty-three years old when she travels to the arid plains of eastern Colorado in the mid-1930s to marry Alfred Bowen, ten years her senior. They have met only twice and have come to love each other through letters. Now, on an isolated ranch in the Dust Bowl, they must adjust to the harsh ranching life and the dangers of an untamed landscape, as well as the differences between them.
With an extended drought worsening the impact of the Depression in the West, neighbors turn against neighbors, and secrets from Alfred and Virginia's pasts come back to haunt them. But it is the arrival of Virginia's troubled brother on the ranch that sets off a chain of events with life-and-death consequences for them all.
Plain Language is a beautifully told tale of a man and woman fighting against tremendous odds for their land -- and their love.
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March 24, 2003
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Excerpt from Plain Language by Barbara Wright
The buckskin gelding pawed the ground and tossed his head back. Alfred urged him on, but the horse moved in quick side steps without going forward. The horse had an Indian background and a stolid temperament. It was not his nature to be nervous. But something was upsetting him.
Alfred looked out over the windy plains of eastern Colorado. Broad hillsides sloped into grassy bottoms dotted with spiny yucca, prickly cactus, and thistle. The land was barren of trees, except for the occasional gnarled scrub cedar clinging to a rocky bluff, or the scraggly cottonwoods that congregated near the creek beds. He saw nothing amiss. Closer in, Alfred checked the ground. No rattlers, gopher holes, or other dangers a sharp horse like Sage might detect.
Alfred clenched his jaw and heard a familiar crunch. Grit. What he didn't breathe in through his nose, he took in through his mouth. Grains of sand lodged in the crevices of his teeth. It was a condition of working on the dry, brittle land.
Six months earlier, when Alfred had bought the ranch, no one had put a name to the long dry spell. He had been living in Mexico for eight years and had read about Roosevelt and the hard times across the country. People had put a name to that: the Depression. What were the odds that, hard on the heels of massive unemployment, would come the misery of drought -- for that was the word everyone now used: drought.
The wind picked up, and the air took on a bilious yellow cast. Alfred had grown up on a ranch in the Rocky Mountains and was not yet familiar with weather patterns on this terrain. He had not yet learned to read the currents and eddies of dust, the way an experienced canoeist could read a river, could tell by the roar of the water, the height of the spume, and the churn of the foam, the exact degree of danger the rapids held.
Overhead, ducks dragged their purple shadows along the backs of the grasses. Sage whinnied and shied back.
"Come on, pal. Help me out here."
Alfred was not in the habit of talking to his horses. Sure, a word or two -- "Good boy," "Giddy-up," that kind of thing. Yet here he was, speaking in full sentences.
He didn't have time for a balky mount. He was losing patience. He thrust his heels into the horse's side, and Sage moved reluctantly forward.
Alfred needed to get home and clean house to prepare for the arrival of his bride. At that very moment, Virginia Mendenhall was on the train from Mexico. She would arrive in Denver the next day and they would get married at the Quaker meetinghouse. It was impulsive to bring Virginia to this desolate land. They were both older and had worked at other jobs -- he as an organizer for the YMCA in Mexico, she for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization based in Philadelphia. She knew nothing about ranching but was game to try. Her enthusiasm reassured him, though he knew, deep down, that she had no idea what she was getting into. If he had been more prudent, he would have waited to see if he could make a success of ranching before bringing her out. But he was not prudent. He was in love, and love and prudence were not compatible. So he abandoned the sense of responsibility that throughout life had been both his curse and his blessing, and asked her to marry him.
Alfred heard a sound like a freight train and looked behind him. A massive cloud rolled toward him, muddy tan at the top, black at the base. Before he knew it, the cloud caught up with him. The wind hit like a tornado, blowing dirt so violently he could not see beyond the brim of his hat.
A dust storm. Sage had known, had tried to warn him. Perhaps it was the static in the air, or some high-pitched signal, some disturbance in the natural order of things that his horse could pick up, while Alfred, with all his reasoning and intelligence, could not.