Author Laura Pritchett grew up on a ranch in Northern Colorado, and you can tell she’s called on firsthand experience to write her collection of short fiction, “Hell’s Bottom, Colorado.” The stories chronicle the separate experiences of each member of the extended Cross family as they try to sustain themselves as ranchers in present-day Northern Colorado.
Each of the 10 stories could stand on its own as a carefully and knowingly written vignette about the fullness of rural life, with all the austere beauty, hard work and hardship to which it gives rise. However, Pritchett instead has chosen to do something more ambitious with the genre. Her stories, told from different perspectives and in shuffled chronological order, weave together to create a deeply textured portrait of a family’s life.
At one point in the book Pritchett flashes back to easier times, to when Ben and Renny Cross first moved onto their ranch in the shadow of the Front Range. The spring floodwaters had just receded. In its wake, the river running through their property had littered the pastures with debris. As the young couple walked through the fields among the cattle bones, fence posts and clots of old barbed wire, Ben named their new property “Hell’s Bottom” in honor of the devastation. It was an eerie scene and one that wouldn’t have been encouraging to most people, but to the Crosses, the land represented promise and a welcome challenge. In the expanse of low foothills with its mountain river, they saw a paradise.
Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, their paradise falls. Pritchett tells the story of people indebted to a disappearing way of life from the perspective of each member. It also explores, in the kind of uncomfortable detail that is learned only from experience, what it’s like to live and work with family.
Ben and Renny Cross, along with their children and grandchildren, don’t live dramatic lives. Their everyday problems are ones we can relate to, especially here in the Yampa Valley — too much work and not enough money, scarce rain and an overabundance of snow. Their stories are ones we know firsthand, and their failings may seem all too recognizable.
It might seem like a depressing premise, but this book proves that even in the face of adversity, the world still can hold promise. “Hell’s Bottom, Colorado” is a tribute to the resilient Western spirit. It’s a heartening reminder, here at the tail end of a long winter and in the middle of an economic recession, that wheat stressed by drought turns out stronger in the end.
Cody Heartz is a full-time resident of Steamboat Springs and is pursuing an master’s degree in creative writing.