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"Crossing the Plains with Bruno"

“Crossing the Plains with Bruno” by Annick Smith

The beauty of a road trip, in writing and in action, is the accessible vastness of it all. For the days when we're on the road, the world expands and we become someone new. Our thoughts go wild until we are intoxicated by freedom and nostalgia. This is the road trip Annick Smith asks us to take in her memoir, "Crossing the Plains with Bruno."

Immediately Smith launches her trip and her story, communicating perfectly the feeling of release and joy when the wheels start rolling. When her partner of 30 years, the writer William Kittredge, calls to tell her he misses her, she writes, “I don't miss anyone.” Her dog, a bulky lab named Bruno, is her driving partner. Their destination is Chicago to take her mother, then 92, to spend the week at their family's lakeside cottage.

As she travels across the Montana landscape she now calls home, Smith gives a brief history or some insight to various places along the way. Although the book is laid out linearly, that is easily forgotten because these tributary asides become so immersive. She includes stories about people she knew, such as Ernest Hemingway's son who lived in Jordan, Montana, as well as basic history of Native people and historic sites.

As often as she mulls over brief histories, Smith divulges personal and family history. This woman is a powerhouse, a writer and filmmaker and is, herself, a golden thread that has stitched together the people, the inspirations, and the art that has built the Montana literary canon. She spends special time describing the famed poet Richard Hugo, a dear friend of hers. These insights into her life and into Montana literary history feel like precious secrets.

The most rewarding stories of Smith's family are those reflections on her mother, her father, and ultimately, aging. Her mother's assisted living home's culture is that of casual death, which makes Smith very uncomfortable. She describes with vivid detail her father, who she now only remembers as the old man he ended his life as and not the young man she sees in pictures, and her parents' complicated relationship. These stories are fascinating and oh-so-human.

Yet, as much as she writes about these difficult subjects, her invulnerability is apparent. She, in fact, describes this shortcoming in her own words when she writes, “I have trouble giving myself away without a stint.” Annick Smith is gritty, real and independent. She is an inspiration, but this emotional distance held her memoir back.

The supporting cast of Bruno, her mother, the vivid descriptions of her father, and all of the writers and artists she's known, are what makes the story alive. Smith's instinct to follow the train of thoughts inherent in long distance travel was good, yet at times you wish she would slow down and focus on the pieces that made her memoir personal, not universal. "Bruno" sometimes feels too hurried and tight for the expansive topics it attempts to cover.

The memoir has been described as “a female 'Travels with Charley.' ” The comparison is obvious; they are both stories about traveling the U.S. with a dog. Yet, chalking up her work as only the counterpart to a classic is an injustice to this unique story. Where Steinbeck's "Charley" is centered on an established author's reconnection with real America, Smith uses her trip as the backdrop of her life story. Instead of chatting with strangers, she reflects on her trip to her ancestral home and describes pouring her father's ashes in a hole in the backyard of their lake cottage. This is the story of Annick Smith, told through the winding highway of her consciousness.

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Tess Fahlgren is a freelance writer who teaches art and creative writing in Nashau.

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