Known for her unflinching short stories (Brokeback Mountain) and darkly funny novels (The Shipping News, That Old Ace in the Hole), Annie Proulx has long been a writer whose unsentimental, often devastating prose can kick up a flurry of emotion. But the dust cloud of conflicting reactions she stirs up with her latest book is something new. A meandering account of building a house on 640 acres of Wyoming prairie and wetlands, Bird Cloud is by turns a work of history, a how-to, an autobiography and a nature guide, with detours into subjects that interest Proulx: genealogy, Wyoming's past, the sad fate of the lodgepole pine, weather, architecture, bird watching and the difficulty of keeping cattle off your land.
But despite all the digressions — and Proulx renders most of them as more interesting than you'd think — you're hard-pressed to forget that Bird Cloud is a book about spending millions of dollars to buy land (from the Nature Conservancy), designing a staggeringly expensive house and griping about the things that go wrong. Proulx isn't afraid to paint herself as petulant, but you still wonder: Is this enough material for a book?
Only a real grouch would begrudge Proulx her financial stability; she describes her French-Canadian family as "a poor, mostly illiterate, rural clan of laborers." She aims to make her own world at Bird Cloud. She craves beauty, isolation, books, space, a house in harmony with its surroundings. But as anyone who has attempted a construction project knows, the delays, problems and miscommunication are enough to drive the calmest soul mad.
The book's best part arrives late, like Wyoming wildflowers. In the final chapter, Proulx chronicles a year in the life of the birds that live along the cliffs near her home: bald eagles, golden eagles, a contentious prairie falcon, ravens, magpies and finches. It's a wonderful slice of nature that reflects Proulx's avid curiosity and the frailties and strengths of nature, much more compelling than the quest for the perfect dining room floor.