The honorable judge cowgirl
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor started off down on the farm
Would you like to read a book in which, to quote the publisher, "The first female justice of the US Supreme Court describes her experiences growing up on a cattle ranch in the American Southwest, and how the land, people, and values shaped her"? I would, too.
"Lazy B" is about that cattle ranch, but its revelations about "how the land, people and values shaped" Sandra Day O'Connor are as skimpy as the region's rainfall.
Readers who may enjoy "Lazy B" will be people who pick it up with the full understanding that is not O'Connor's autobiography, nor a literary memoir. It's a memory book about ranch life and cowpoking. And although everybody in "Lazy B" rides a horse well, the telling of their tales is invariably pedestrian.
It's no pleasure to report this. The authors, Sandra and her decade-younger brother, Alan, seem like very nice people: whip-smart, respectful of others, fun-loving, and passionate about the landscape of their youth. They honor the grandparents and parents who built the Lazy B, which at one point supported some 2,000 cows and their calves on 160,000 acres. They are scrupulous about details (explaining how 8,560 of those acres were owned by the Day family and the rest were leased for grazing from state or federal agencies), and in this fashion explicate the complicated economics of ranching. They appreciate animals - horses, most obviously, and cattle, but also the javelinas, bobcats, snakes, and other wild things of the Gila River region. They don't brag about their accomplishments: neither Sandra's, which are extraordinary; nor Alan's, which are considerable.
As would be expected of ranch kids, they have some good stories: the one about the grandparent who unwittingly extended hospitality to a pair of robbers bound for Mexico; the one about the bootlegging neighbor who tried to shoot a gallon of evidence out of a revenuer's hand; the time Sandra's father lassoed her and a cousin to get them to vacate a water tank where the girls were swimming; the time that, in the heat of a chase, Alan and an eager-to-please horse slid sideways under a barbed-wire fence; the tragic times when Alan, the only son and youngest child of a perfectionistic father in a macho environment, bites off more than he can chew - and causes the deaths of two magnificent animals.
But, wait, I'm growing a bit interpretative, and that's not the authors' way. Introspection is almost as rare in this book as haute couture on the ranch. The authorial voice here is one familiar from Christmas newsletters or letters of application - genres devoted to disclosure, perhaps, but not candor or soul-searching. Worse, when the authors do draw conclusions, they favor tidy morals: "Another lesson learned," or "We learned we couldn't always have our own way," or "Not all ranch stories have a happy ending."
The result inadvertently invites readers to play amateur psychoanalyst, to fixate between the lines. Why are there detailed portraits of the ranch's cowboys, but only perfunctory comments about the maternal grandmother with whom Sandra lived in El Paso during all but one of her school seasons? Is it odd that Sandra - an only child for nine years before her sister, Ann, and then Alan were born within 18 months - refers to her parents by nicknames that originated with Ann?
What exactly was going through Sandra Day's mind when she first brought John O'Connor home from law school and took him straight out to where the calves were being castrated to meet her father, who immediately grilled some testicles for him over the branding-iron fire?
The authors don't tell us. But I think it means that not all ranch stories have satisfying endings.
Carol Doup Muller is a former book review editor of the San Jose Mercury News.