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Genesis in Proulx’s Panhandle

1850 - 1900 Sylvia S. Queen's "Garden of Eden" Quilt
Alfred Harrell/National Museum of American History & Smithsonian Institution Archives
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National Museum of American History & Smithsonian Institution Archives
1850 - 1900 Sylvia S. Queen's "Garden of Eden" Quilt. TE*T15534. Detail view. From 35mm Kodachrome.

I’m Alex Hunt, Professor of English at West Texas A&M University in Canyon for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club 2022 Fall Read.

It’s my pleasure to be discussing Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, published in 2002. Proulx is best known for her novel The Shipping News, which won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and her short story “Brokeback Mountain,” which caused quite a stir when Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal starred in the film version.

One thing that is consistent in Proulx’s fiction is her interest in land and how people relate to it. In That Old Ace in the Hole, Proulx moves back into a formative text in considering our relationship to nature, the Bible, and the book of Genesis in particular. Proulx makes no secret of her intention as she describes the efforts of the local quilting circle, a group that makes fabulously complex quilts depicting biblical scenes in Texas panhandle idiom.

One depicts Adam and Eve, another Cain and Abel. In the former, Proulx writes, “In the center of the Garden stood a magnificent apple tree loaded with shining satin apples and twined in its branches was an oversize diamondback rattler with a tongue of tiny black beads that seemed to flicker. . . . Adam was naked except for cowboy boots and a hat, which he held in front of his crotch. He was stitched all over with black curly hair. Eve, chatting gaily with the snake, her back to the viewer, showed long pink buttocks. She was wearing a charm bracelet, each charm sharply detailed, and Bob could make out a dangling state of Texas. An apple core lay on the ground.”

On the Cain and Abel quilt, Proulx writes, “The ground was a great tawny pasture dotted with mesquite and Spanish bayonet. In the distance there was a corral and a figure bending over a branding fire. In the foreground, a burly farmer, his face contorted with rage, stood over a recumbent shepherd, preparing to smash his face (which resembled that of James Dean) with a huge rock. Three blue-eyed sheep looked on. Blows had already been struck and copious blood stained the ground. The killer’s blue overalls were spattered with red satin gore.”

While the ladies explain that they use local setting and characters to make the biblical stories more “real-like” for a Christian audience, Proulx’s larger intent seems to be to point out the universality of these stories which establish key ideas regarding the natural world and land use. These stories take on a multitude of meanings from the pulpit, but on an important level they are stories of the human relationship to or responsibility for nature, in the garden story, and for Cain and Able, on pastoral versus agricultural lifeways.

And these are themes of great interest to Proulx throughout her work, including in her examination of the southern great plains. In That Old Ace in the Hole, the main conflict becomes the controversy over large-scale corporate hog farm operations. While some characters take an all-business-is-good-business approach, others oppose the operations on the grounds of the noxious smell, over-exploitation of groundwater resources, and lack of fit with the community. Bob is caught right in the middle of this controversy, and as he finds his way through his own feelings about his job and the region he has discovered, we move toward the novel’s resolution.

I’m Alex Hunt, Professor of English at West Texas A&M University in Canyon for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club 2022 Fall Read. Thanks for listening.

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Fall Read 2022: Rural Life Revisited 2022 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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