Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Ordinary Skin: Essays from Willow Springs

By Amy Hale Auker

Reviewed By Kim Kankiewicz

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“In the shadow of Jones Mountain, we are tearing down the old white house,” begins Amy Hale Auker’s essay “Using Tools Backwards.” The old white house is an abandoned building on Spider Ranch, seventy-two square miles of central Arizona where Auker and her husband live and work. They dismantle the house to appease a county clerk who spots the building on Google Earth and wants to collect property taxes.

Stripping away shingles and siding and doorframes to make the structure uninhabitable, Auker finds herself imagining the women who “stored milk in the cellar, hung beeves from the high hooks, planted gardens, swept the floors, raised babies, stood in the wind while pinning laundry to dry.” As the layers fall away and the original log frame is exposed, a “collage woman” takes shape. “In the shadow of Jones Mountain,” Auker amends, “we are tearing down her house.”

With the discovery of a century-old newspaper beneath the siding, the “collage woman” becomes a particular woman—the woman who responded to the “refined young man of good habits” advertising for a “matrimonially inclined” lady. Auker shifts subtly to second person in speculative passages about this woman’s life: “Did you think this creek bottom below Jones Mountain was beautiful or desolate or both?” . . . “I hope you dreaded the coming winter less as the men nailed up the tongue-and-groove siding hauled in by wagon over long roads you rarely got to travel.” The essay concludes, “In the shadow of Jones Mountain, we are tearing down your house.”

“Using Tools Backwards” is a masterful essay, gracefully balancing the deconstruction of a dwelling with the assembly of a life. Auker’s Ordinary Skin accomplishes something similar. Collectively, Auker’s essays and prose poems describe both the prying loose of norms that have structured her life and the emergence of a vibrant woman who seeks out wild places.

Auker’s backstory includes a conservative Christian upbringing in a Texas ranching family; a seventeen-year marriage to a working cowboy; a seven-week camping trip with her daughter, which proved she could survive without her husband; the dissolution of her marriage; the discovery of new love with musician and ranch foreman Gail Steiger; and her decision to join Steiger at Spider Ranch, the setting for most of Ordinary Skin.

Auker writes of her arrival at Spider Ranch: “I can think of no greater kick than being transplanted in the middle of life, no greater or more welcome challenge than being bent and softened by a steep learning curve in my fifth decade.” That learning curve involves not just working cattle and adapting to an unfamiliar landscape, but awakening to the landscape within herself. Shedding inherited notions, she uncovers new truths about home and family, faith and eternity, femininity and beauty. In each case, the natural landscape provides access to the internal. “If the whole world is a mirror,” Auker muses, “then there is no clearer reflection than the self we see when we are alone in a wild place.”

Auker’s prose, like the woman who emerges at Spider Ranch, is lusty and unrestrained. Her writing invites us to explore without dictating our experience. She asks us simply to join her as she attends to her environment. Auker understands the power of narrative. In fact, she devotes an entire essay to the subject of storytelling: “We gather our stories and tell them in hopes of sounding a deep gong within another.” She wields that power effectively in essays like “The Black Hen,” about her friendship with an injured chicken, and “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” about an encounter with a drifter at a hot spring.

Some of the most memorable passages, however, are less story than sensation. Auker performs as a cowboy poet, and she’s attuned to the sound of language. Her writing begs to be read aloud, as in the playful essay “Moisture Breeds Moisture”: “The beat of the heat is a refrain as we strain toward the hope of rain with dust under our feet and the crust of dried-up ponds mocking the month and the dense blue of the rueful rural sky.”

Moreover, Auker is keenly aware of the sounds and sights and smells of her surroundings. In an essay called “Wild Things,” she calls our attention to “a frog song serenade . . . punctuated by splashes down at the creek,” calves “all boneless and soft, sleeping while their mouths move in sucking motions,” and the mixed-together smells of “alfalfa and dirt and manure and blood and wood fire.”

By ushering us into her world with all our senses engaged, Auker facilitates our connection to the place she loves. But the broader impact of her writing is that it may embolden us to take down our walls and venture into the wild places in our own lives.

Kim Kankiewicz is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, O, The Oprah Magazine, NPR, the Atlantic, Full Grown People, and the Washington Post.