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Book Reviews, Reviews

The Immensity of Small Things: A Literary Review of Gretel Ehrlich’s Solace of Open Spaces

By Kate Scowsmith

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich is an autobiographical account of the author’s experiences dealing with grief in the open planes of Wyoming. After losing someone dear to her, Gretel sets out to love life again by abandoning her creature comforts in the city. Working as a sheepherder, Gretel was responsible for delousing, sheering and castrating flocks of sheep in the vast farmland of Wyoming. With delicate, yet piercing, words she weaves an inspiring and memorable relationship between the individual and nature. These words are organized into chapters which are worlds within themselves. The relationship between the individual and nature has long been influential in the world of writing; Ehrlich explores this bond in a new light through the power of writing itself.

What makes her work particularly evocative is the genre she has written in. Typically, Westerns are reserved for hardened cowboys or ranchers. Gretel Ehrlich reveals that not only can women do this rugged work of running a ranch and tending to animals, but they already do. Working alongside women in the planes of Wyoming, Ehrlich reveals a little known truth in the world of ranching and working the land: the women are there too.

The short novel is a cacophony of moving words, but I wish to focus on several excerpts that I find quite moving in the realm of writing and organizing thoughts. In the venue of autobiographical work, the daunting task of assembling memories and feelings can be overwhelming whilst telling a story. In her novel, Ehrlich does a remarkable job relating her experiences to the impressive setting she has planted herself in.

“The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly, light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding. Finally, the lessons of impermanence taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.”

This paragraph, poetry in itself, exemplifies Ehrlich’s ability to relate the power of nature with the assembly of meaningful words. The weather is the grand organizer, where the light illuminates the things that are hardest to see and the wind filters out frivolities. The natural world is this powerful force that we all succumb too, and are maybe more sensitive too in times of tragedy and confusion. Letting go and allowing nature to take its course makes the answer more obvious. Equally powerful is what we learn from “impermanence”. We know, inherently, that nothing is forever. Yet, it is so easy to lose sight of that. As Ehrlich says, it is losing something valuable that makes us realize what it is to be whole. Just as important, it is a bottoming out or ultimate sadness that drives us to live and find beauty again.

“From the clayey soil of northern Wyoming is mined bentonite, which is used as filler in candy, gum, and lipstick. We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We gave only to look at the houses we build to see how we build *against* space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.”

This excerpt ties into the last one I discussed with the idea of “obtuse padding”. We as Americans, and maybe just as human beings, get consumed with the ways we think things should be. The things that mark our success or achievements. Ehrlich argues that these “things” obstruct our ability to see what is there. In a sense, we get in the way of our own happiness or understanding of things. I really like thinking about what this means in the realm of writing. As readers, and writers, we get inundated with books and other literary material that exemplify good writing. Or, instead, they point to topics or genres that are worth writing and striving for above others. In a sense, she is arguing that the best writing is simple and inspired through natural means.

In her process of grieving on the planes, Ehrlich begins to soften and appreciate the world she took for granted or could not appreciate in her previous surroundings. She learns that “true solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere.” This idea works well on many levels. It is definitely moving in the context of overcoming grief, that peace eventually can be found everywhere (as it is up to you). I also respect this quote when thinking about it in the terms of writing. It is easy to get caught up in what we think is acceptable to write about. What do people want to read about? Will what I have to say be interesting? We can think of this quote as “the secret to the source of creative writing is not finding it, which is to say, it is everywhere”. This idea celebrates that all that can be explored or written about is right here, in this world, accessible to everyone (and is equally valuable).

If you hear enough interviews with successful writers you learn of their quirky ways to get inspired to write. Maya Angelou rents a hotel room with no artwork and drinks sherry. Isabelle Allende goes to a dark room and lights a candle. In any case, these writers become hypersensitive to the small, overlooked things. Instead of tackling really big thoughts directly, they approach it through the small things first. Gretel Ehrlich also follows suit in organizing big pursuits, like grieving, through the expanse of open space and interacting with the natural world.


The Solace of Open Spaces. Gretel Ehrlich. Copyright 1986. Penguin Books.


Kate Scowsmith has a B.A. in Women and Gender Studies (Film Studies and Social Work emphasis) from UC Davis and an M.A. in Women’s Studies (Social Research) from the University of York, UK. She currently works in special education, is an event planner, and enthusiast of the arts.

About The Haberdasher

Created by writers for writers, The Haberdasher, or le Hab, is your Peddler of Literary Art for Northern California and beyond. In addition to writing tips and literary debates, we also feature critical reviews and author interviews.


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