How I came West, and Why I Stayed by Alison BakerChronicle Books published How I Came West, and Why I Stayed by Alison Baker 1993, just after Chronicle had become famous for producing lavish, photo-intensive cookbooks, and books featuring rich graphic design such as 1991’s Griffin and Sabine. Baker’s book was published in the era before McSweeney’s, back when fantastical fiction tended to be pigeonholed into magic realism. Although How I Came West And Why I Stayed is still in print, it was never reissued and bears the early-nineties obsession with Southwestern kitsch: the book has a cover with borders that would look at home on a piece of pottery. I bought my copy in a used bookstore in the mid-1990s. My copy carries the author’s signature, although I’ve never seen her read. You can find a copy of the book today at Albris for $1.99.

Baker writes stories that are not realistic nor are they allegorical in the fairy tale mode of Kelly Link or Shirley Jackson. Instead her stories are realistic but with very twisted facts. They are tall tales in the vein of Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. In the title story, a woman arrives in Montana hunting for wild cheerleaders who occupy the wilderness like cryptozoological fauna. Their cheers echo from distant snowfields. In another story, the narrator tells a vivid anecdote about the time the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead came to visit before a lecture at the university where the narrator’s father worked. The family decides to serve Mead authentic Midwestern cuisine: hot dogs and jell-o salad.

“Do you think she’ll get it?” said my mother, getting a package of hot dogs out of the freezer.
“She’s an intellectual, isn’t she?” said Aunt Roxie.

The narrator, a child in the account of the visit, gets ready to perform a made-up fertility dance. One of the professors from the university is fussily annoyed and says the narrator looks like “a mongoloid idiot.” The child doesn’t know exactly what this is, although she knows idiot isn’t good. Mead arrives “wearing a jacket like my father’s,” and a skirt. Mead is invited to dance in the made up dance, and she does. The detail is as specific and vivid as any first class lie.

After this account is over, the narrative, already clearly set from the point of view an adult looking back, informs us that after her mother died, the narrator and her sister examine the objects from the house. She asks her sister about Mead’s visit, and her sister has no idea what she is talking about.

“Jane didn’t remember any of it. ‘Our mother would never have served hot dogs to Margaret Mead,’ she said. The specific memory is met with a specific objection. We are left wondering then if this made-up story in a made-up story really happened.

The idea of the tall tale is to make the listener believe what they are hearing and then at some point to break the frame and say something like “Gotcha.” Although I suppose in a masterly tall tale, the author or storyteller may never let you know. Although they have a lot in common with myths, tale tales I think have less to do with allegories and more to do with surface of the story and the confusion of reality. In Baker’s book, the west, is an empty landscape waiting to be filled not necessarily with meaning, but at least with stories.

In “The Heaven of Animals,” the narrator says about the west:

As we drove across the miles and miles of flat gray countryside, I dreamed of the land we were approaching: towering mountains teeming with wolves; dark, uncharted forests heavy with the herds of buffalo. I’d read about the west: grizzly bears came right out on the road and looked in your car window. You could give them peanut butter, and scratch their ears.

Rediscovered Reading is a regular series in which Matt Briggs reviews overlooked collections of short fiction. Matt is the author of Shoot the Buffalo and other books. He blogs at

  1. Marcy Dermansky

    Hey Matt,

    I’m so glad you chose to write about this collection. I have recommended these stories to many people, including teaching them to my fiction class and fellow fictionaut Noria Jablonski, who has written about Siamese Twins.

    My favorite story was one you didn’t write about, about black conjoined twins Lattimus and Clearwater who capture the imagination of the entire first grade in an upscale Midwestern community. It ends with a beautiful sentence about first graders skipping across the playground arm in arm, beating with one heart. I should quote it, but the book shamefully hasn’t been returned to my stacks. Now I am worried it is lost.

    I wonder if Alison Baker is still writing.


  2. mbriggs

    Hi Marcy, Yeah. That story is great. Baker published another collection a couple of years after How I Came West, And Why I Stayed, Loving Wanda Beaver. But it looks like she has not published a book since. Chronicle has kept her her first book in print, it looks like. Here is Baker’s Web site… Thanks, Matt

  3. jedediah

    This sounds fantastic, and it’s been completely off my radar. Looking forward to checking it out.

  4. Geoff Fox

    Thanks, Matt. Those stories sound like great fun.

  5. Tim Bellows

    I too love Baker’s tales. That sense of wonder and joy not seen enough in our literature. – Thanks for your blog’s materials! – – – – –

    – a few thoughts on fiction and the poetic –

    Here’s the letter I sent to Chris:

    So . . . why bother? Why spend your time with these fictions and poemlines strung along in words?
    My thought on that for today: An author, in the work of delving and diving for an over-the-top insight, can bring out a story or poem that hits on some issue we may barely understand in ourselves. We may find, in reading, a range of feeling shown that we’ve never bathed in. We’re confronted, in black and white, with a new perspective, a new take on how life and love work. Now we can see more clearly – if we pay attention and lead with heart-sense as we read.
    And by the way, will we read “The Things They Carried” (to me, this is too heartless in places to be useful) or Rebecca Lee’s “Fialta”?
    Perhaps you too have grown tired of of the many writers who fall back on imagery of darkness, night, and all things black. Here’s something more in my style; it’s inspired from a higher “plane” than the earth; it gives a lift, framed in beauty:

    As I walked home, I turned back and saw through the trees again that window, ringing with clarity and light above the dark grounds, the way the imagination shines above the dark world, as inaccessible as love, even as it casts its light all around. (from “Fialta.”)

    Remember that all the choices and micro-choices we make determine the path our writings will take. What reading, music, writing, art and movement are we choosing to touch us? What’s the mood, the tone, the spiritual height of it all? I remember a line in Heller’s Catch 22: “The spirit gone, man is garbage.” For real worth, we need to keep connected with spirit. The spirit present, man is priceless. As writers, we need to be aware of where we’re coming from to make a genuine contribution.

    What can we do about this issue? How do you, Chris, innovate to be a high spark – and set one off in readers?

    Stay in tune,

    (Author of Sunlight from Another Day /

  1. 1 Review of How I Came West and Why I Stayed by Alison Baker « Matt Briggs

    […] review for “Rediscovered Reading” at Fictionaut Blog, How I Came West and Why I Stayed by Alison Baker. The idea of the tall tale is to make the listener believe what they are hearing and then at some […]

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