At first, the arrival of Annie Proulx's first memoir, "Bird Cloud," seems curiously timed. In the midst of the foreclosure crisis, at a time when Americans are losing their homes at breakneck speed -- here, now, is a painstaking account of building a new house. And it's a lavish one, too, involving an architect and an artisan cabinetmaker.
A commodious kitchen, a fishing room, ample shelving for her mountains of books -- these are the luxuries Proulx installs at Bird Cloud, the dramatic cliffside property she bought along Wyoming's North Platte River in 2003. Yes, when the author of "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Shipping News" rhapsodizes on polished concrete and rusted corrugated tin, there is a whiff of unexamined privilege. But these passages are also a delight for design-lovers. What's more, Proulx includes a few companionable sections on cranky contractors -- these will please anyone who ever endured a remodeling project.
In Proulx's case, the project isn't complete with the final swing of the hammer. About halfway in, she dispenses with the construction chatter and cedes her book to the complicated history of Bird Cloud -- think American Indian artifacts, Victorian-era sportsmen and eagle-poaching ranchers.
Clearly, she undertook exhaustive research, including archaeological digs, in an attempt to find the spirit of her new residence. As a result, she achieves a sometimes poignant, always charming book that wrestles with the physical and emotional meaning of home.
If the reader hopes to glimpse the author's personal life, however, the book will only disappoint. Even when writing memoir, Proulx persists with her habit of privacy. The juiciest bit is a brief reference to her long-ago marriage to a U.S. serviceman, though she also names the three sons, the one daughter-in-law and the many friends who visit her single-person dwelling.
The consolation, perhaps, is a short history of Proulx's paternal family and confessions to character flaws. For example, she finds it difficult to love a house.
But surely, readers will delight in the lush language. In the classic style of Proulx, there are sensuous passages describing the wildlife (especially the birds) she encounters on regular walks and cross-country skiing jaunts. In a couple of the book's more rewarding passages, Proulx manages to capture the euphoria that can, on occasion, bubble up when a person experiences such natural beauty.
With its gentle prose and unsentimental portrait of the brutal Western landscape, "Bird Cloud" is well positioned to capture remarkable moments like these.
Christy DeSmith is a former editor at the Rake and Mpls.St.Paul magazines. She now lives in Boston.