Working the Land: The Stories of Ranch and Farm Women in the Modern American West [Review]

reviewed by Laura Abbott

Working the Land: The Stories of Ranch and Farm Women in the Modern American West
Sandra K. Schackel
Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2011
ISBN 978-0-7006-1780-7, hardcover
200 pages, $24.95

Sandra K. Schackel, a professor of history emerita at Boise State University, devoted over ten years to collecting and analyzing oral histories from more than forty ranch and farm women from western states.  Her research culminated in the publication of Working the Land: The Stories of Ranch and Farm Women in the Modern American West.

Schackel’s informative book recalls the experiences of ranch and farm women as an active and vibrant part of shaping the current Western way of life in Idaho, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.  The interviewees are quite diverse with regards to age, income level, ethnic heritage, marital status, educational level, and family dynamics. The author’s intent in writing the book was to examine how an agricultural woman’s life has changed over the past fifty years from the “bottom up”, and she succeeds.  As Schackel reviewed her recorded interviews, she discovered several underlying themes emerging from the women’s recollections:  the pleasure and fulfillment found in the agricultural way of life, changing gender roles and responsibilities on the farm, the increasing need for off-farm wage work, using farms and ranches as tourist recreation sites, and how women have increasingly become agricultural activists.   The author bases the book’s organization around these themes.

Working the Land is written in a highly readable style. The voices of the farm/ranch women shine through, and the reader is given an intimate sense of both the joy and the heartache connected to an agricultural lifestyle. For example, interviewee Gretchen Sammis commented, “My grandfather had set the ranch up in trust before he died in 1964, but no one but me really wanted it. I had a good teaching job which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I loved every one of my kids. But when the opportunity arose to take over the ranch, I took early retirement, and here I am. I believe that very early in life an individual sets priorities that he or she is hardly aware of.  Deep down, I always knew I would someday be running the ranch and taking care of it”  (81).

Although Sandra Schackel did not grow up on a farm, she has strong ties to agriculture having been raised in a small rural community and having extensively studied rural women’s history professionally. The book makes a valuable academic contribution to the history of rural women and of the West, while at the same time, it offers the general public an engaging read about strong women finding meaning in their lives.  To personalize the book, the author has included a number of black and white photographs, and to enhance the book’s scholarly appeal, she has included her questionnaire, extensive notes, and a selected bibliography.  The epilogue was an especially enjoyable section of the book since the reader was updated on the dynamic women who had, vicariously, become friends.

Working the Land is an excellent choice for all academic libraries wanting to add a stellar title to their Women’s or Western History collections and for public libraries wanting to add interesting and relevant books to their adult non-fiction collections.

Laura Abbott is a Librarian at the Nampa Public Library. She recently graduated with an MLIS from San Jose State University.

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