Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, by Laura Pritchett

Review by Abby Quillen

Colorado Farm – February 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

Hell’s Bottom, Colorado
by Laura Pritchett
Published in 2001 by Milkweed Publications
ISBN 1-57131-036-3

HELL’S BOTTOM, COLORADO is a short story collection and that alone may turn some readers away. However, Laura Pritchett handles the form masterfully by interweaving ten stories about the Crosses, a single extended family of cattle ranchers, who live and work in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado.

Each story is complete within itself; each captures a moment in time and brings one or two members of the Cross family to life. Every story has a plot and a conclusion, but all of them are linked to the bigger story of how the extended Cross family relates to each other. Therefore, it’s impossible to see the whole picture until the end.

Reading this collection is like peeling back layers of an artichoke to get to the heart of the matter. The stories are not chronological; they form a circle. The events that start the book conclude the book. By the end, however, it all makes sense, and you feel as if you understand the Cross family.

Perhaps that’s what Hell’s Bottom, Colorado is about: making sense of family. We all strive to do that at some point in our lives. And on occasion most of us have probably felt that we don’t really understand our family. But we can’t climb into the brains of our family members in order to grasp their perspective. As an author, however, Pritchett can do that, and the result is intriguing.

The stories are full of unpleasant realities of life on a cattle ranch that can make a weak stomach turn. In one story, a calf is too large for his mother to birth, so he dies in her uterus and has to be cut into pieces to be removed. In another story, two young adolescents come upon a badly injured calf, and decide that they must shoot it to put it out of its misery. Later in the collection, a young boy shoots a dove, but it doesn’t die, so he is forced to deal with what he’s done. The stories vividly interweave images of the beautiful parts of ranching — a downy snowfall, the blue peaks of the Rocky Mountains, expansive fields of grass — with the grotesque.

The stories not only depict the ins and outs of ranch life, they also capture riveting moments in the family’s life: a teenage couple goes to the city for an abortion; a fire threatens lives and homes in the canyon near Hell’s Bottom Ranch; a middle-aged woman decides whether to cheat on her husband; another woman is beaten and murdered by her abusive husband.

SO, IT’S NOT SURPRISING that the stories bleed with emotion. But as the characters’ feelings spill onto the page, sometimes it feels as if these stories might sink in all of that emotion. Perhaps that’s because Pritchett is not always content to let her characters show how they feel. Instead, she seems to think it’s necessary to over-write some passages, as though she doesn’t trust her readers to recognize the poignancy of the scene. The result is that her character’s emotions sometimes ring false.

For instance, thirteen-year-old Jess decides to stop taking the quarters and dimes off of the dryer because she is scared that her mom and step-dad will need the money to pay for their land. And that’s a powerful image, one that can stand alone. But then Jess says, “I want to live on this prairie that stretches and stretches, just like how my heart feels when I think of it, expanding so far into nowhere that nothing can stop it, not even the soft gray mountains I see in the distance.”

At that point, I had to stop and ask myself if a thirteen-year-old would really think such things (or if anyone would, for that matter). In some passages, Pritchett seems so eager to inject her characters with intense and haunting emotions that she loses sight of whether the characters would realistically feel or say such things.

However, the vibrant emotions are also what make these stories compelling. They shed light on how family members relate to each other, and they show how people can withstand unimaginable heartbreak and yet keep on living, and seeing that — as a character in the book says — “this ordinary life is sometimes laced with miracles.”

And some scenes and characters in Hell’s Bottom, Colorado stay with you long after you put the book down. For instance, there’s Renny, the matriarch of the family. She keeps getting apologetic letters from Ray, who is serving time in the Canon City prison for murdering her daughter.

“Renny, for reasons she has not yet clarified with herself, posts these letters on the corkboard in the grocery store, alongside notices for free barn cats and hay for sale. Maybe she hopes they serve as an invitation, one to everyone in town. To stop by and talk about this thing that is crushing her.”