Preview: Ripley Hugo reads from her book, "Writing for Her life: The Novelist Mildred Walker" at
7 p.m. Tuesday, June 10, in Fact & Fiction, 220 N. Higgins Ave.
She was stunned, Ripley Hugo says, to read her mother's novels. The woman with enough empathy to write "Winter Wheat" certainly wasn't the Mildred Walker she knew.
Exacting, demanding, and unrelentingly critical not only of her daughter but also of almost everyone else with whom she came in contact: That was the Walker she'd grown up with, the impeccably dressed and coiffed, impossibly graceful mother who derided young Ripley in front of dinner guests and threw the gangly 11-year-old girl into awkward relief.
"In her social life, she was utterly charming," Hugo, the 74-year-old widow of the nationally renowned poet Richard Hugo says over lunch recently. "That's how everyone
At home, though, her East-Coast-bred mother would speak in utterly disparaging terms about the very same people she'd just won over so winsomely: His trousers were too short; her red dress was garish and cheap; they weren't, all in all, the "right sort of people" with whom
Growing up in Great Falls, Hugo says, she found that so many people failed to earn her mother's approval - which was a source of consternation for the girl.
"I didn't understand her," Hugo says. "I had wanted to understand her, but I steeled myself against it."
If it sounds like the quintessential mother-daughter conflict, it is. Hugo's relationship with her mother was fraught with ambivalence, but not of the love-hate kind. In "Writing for Her Life: The Novelist Mildred Walker," Hugo's book about her mother, there seems to be very little love at all.
"When people exclaim to me about the privilege of growing up with my mother, the writer, I think of how my brothers and I grew up more keenly aware of a mother who insisted in her role (in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s) of a doctor's wife in a Montana town of about 25,000 people; a mother whose merriment or pleasure in shared moments seemed reserved for an occasion; a mother who insisted on decorum, performance of correctness in front of those outside the family; a mother who dressed and held herself exactly as other children's mothers we knew, giving afternoon teas, selling tickets for the Junior League, conducting dinner parties at which we could overhear her entertaining guests with vivid, humorous descriptions of our latest escapades. A mother who was not easy to live up to." - "Writing for Her Life"
At lunch, though, Hugo dismisses the notion that anyone could be interested in her relationship with her mother: The writing, she points out, is the focus of the book and it's Mildred Walker the author, not the mother, who holds the public's fascination.
Indeed, "Writing for Her Life," drawing on journals and notebooks and the author's own tales to her children, does provide an in-depth look into how Walker the author worked - where her characters came from, how she developed plot ideas, why she wrote about the topics she chose. From her childhood years as a minister's daughter in Philadelphia and then Scranton, Pa. - years that saw summers in Grafton, Vt., scene of several Walker novels to her final years in Missoula and Portland, Ore., Hugo's first book examines the author's past and her personality and how those factors affected her professional choices.
"Winter Wheat," her sixth and perhaps best-known novel, contains, for example, a young woman whose parents are vastly different from each other, like Walker's own mother and father. Protagonist Ellen Webb's father, Ben, hails from Vermont, like Walker and her family. Her Eastern boyfriend, Gil, visits the ranch and suffers from a culture shock that must have been familiar to the high-bred, eastern-born Walker. Even Ellen's childhood memory about washing cucumbers, Hugo tells us, comes straight from the author's own youthful experiences.
"I don't know if that's how every writer works," Hugo says, "but she lived it."
It was at Wells College, Hugo guesses, where her mother acquired her strict upper-middle-class sense of propriety - one that made her chastise the adult Hugo for sewing curtains with "too skimpy hems" - a relic of the "make-do" world her parents inhabited and that she professed to detest. As a doctor's wife in Great Falls, she had little incentive to "make do," which
was, apparently, just the way she wanted it.
Such high expectations, however, invariably lead to disappointment. Writing almost to the exclusion of everything else including home and family, Walker produced 13 novels and was nominated for or received a number of awards, but never did she gain much national critical acclaim or even recognition - a sore point for her throughout her life, Hugo says.
What's more, her own daughter failed to live up to the standards she'd set for the girl.
"Mother thought that I would go East and marry properly," Hugo says. "I came back to teach at a country school and was married on the banks of the Missouri instead of in an Episcopal chapel."
She also, later in life, married a man her mother criticized as "fat" and whose national reputation seemed to hold no value for Walker. He was the poet Richard Hugo.
"Mother asked me, 'Why would anyone want to write poems when they could write novels?' " says Hugo, herself a poet.
"I thought, 'You fool!' I was married to Dick (Hugo). I thought it was self-evident."