Burning Fences (a Western memoir)
by Craig Lesley
Imagine a beat-up old trailer sitting off a gravel road in Monument, Oregon not too far from John Day. Dried grass and weeds grow up around a cable spool used as a table outside the trailer, and a pile of Oly beer cans sit by the front door. This is the home of Craig Lesley’s father Rudell, a crusty trapper and elk hunter who smells like skunk pee, the bait he uses to trap Coyote.
It’s detail and descriptions like this that make Northwest author, Craig Lesley’s memoir so much fun to read. As a North-westerner myself, I’m familiar with the places Lesley grew up in: the Dalles, Madras, and Baker City, Oregon. But Burning Fences is more than just setting and place: Lesley writes a good story too.
After being abandoned as an infant by his father Rudell, Lesley spent much of his growing up years looking for validation from fatherly figures like Vern, his abusive step-father and Oscar, the uncle that owned a sporting goods store. Lesley gets his big chance to reconnect with Rudell, when his father suddenly shows up in his hospital room after Lesley’s been injured in a farm machinery accident. Rudell’s flippancy, saying his son got hurt, “playing chicken with a mint chopper” says a great deal about who Rudell is and how much he is willing to give to this new father-son relationship.
Yet despite his father’s lack of commitment—or maybe because of it—Lesley confesses that Rudell’s abandonment helped defined his life. “Rudell’s neglect motivated me to raise an alcohol-damaged Indian boy just to show the old man I could succeed as a father where he had fallen down.”
When Wade, Lesley’s foster son, sets fire to Rudell’s fence post pile, Lesley finally recognizes he cannot control either Wade or Rudell’s behavior. Only then is Lesley willing to burn fences and abandon the expectations he’d had of himself and others.