Reviewed by Emily Webber
Bethany Maile confronts the fabled American West with a sharp journalistic eye and deep personal insight in Anything Will Be Easy After This: A Western Identity Crisis (University of Nebraska Press, 2020). Maile’s memoir in essays is one of the latest in the American Lives series edited by Tobias Wolf, showing, through works of creative or literary memoir, the diversity of American lives and the different ways stories are told. In these essays, Maile engages in typical western events such as following women competing for the title of a rodeo queen, visiting a shooting range, examining the popularity of a country pop star, and going to a cattle auction. She uses these experiences as springboards for her reflection on how the character of the West has shaped her identity, what elements of those stories are valuable to keep, and what must be examined and rethought to move forward in a healthier way.
“Going West” opens the memoir and sets the foundation for the book. Maile, eager to escape her small town when she turned eighteen, backpacks through Europe and then enrolls in Emerson College in Boston. Maile does not even last a year in Boston before heading back to her hometown, Eagle, Idaho. She is driven back home in part by Mary Clearman Blew’s book, Bone Deep in Landscape, unexpectedly found in a Boston bookstore, that calls up the visions of the land she loves and a longing for home that she can’t shake.
Maile returns home not to find the western ideal in her mind, but instead a “farm-town-turned-glitzy suburb.” This experience, along with the words of William Kitteridge, stating that people need to re-examine the mythology handed to them and evolve their stories, marks the beginning of Maile’s exploration into the mythology of the American West and her own long-held beliefs.
Maile’s tone throughout the book is casual, and it is clear she wants to engage in a conversation with the reader. She wants us on this journey with her as an insider, and she arms us with the knowledge. Anything Will Be Easy after This, presents the reader with immersive journalism and an equally compelling memoir. There is a consistent thread throughout the essays, and they are both individually captivating and come together as a unified whole. Maile never interrogates the beliefs of others without also turning that same examining eye to herself. She never writes with a vagueness but openly shares from her own experiences, making this work authentic and informative.
Some of the essays capture the fading spirit of the American West and those who try to hang on to these versions of the past. Others tackle more complex and emotionally weighted issues like guns in America, government regulation, and the impact people have on the environment. In “Ladies Night at the Shooting Range,” it is still startling to read how commonplace guns are and how casually they are treated against the statistics of mass shootings and domestic violence in America. “True Grit, Country Strong, and Other Lies” starts as a simple comparison of movies, one Maile hates and the other she loves. As she further examines her reaction to each, the essay ends up as a surprisingly intricate meditation on the harm the “stay tough and power through” attitude can cause, especially when addiction and mental illness are involved. Maile shows the harm we can do to ourselves and others and how we damage the land we profess to love. In America, the Mustang symbol is used everywhere to indicate strength and freedom, but “The Wild Ones” shows a much darker reality.
Even readers with no familiarity with the West will find these essays engaging and enlightening. I found myself researching many topics further after reading each of these, such as Ruby Ridge, the horsemanship rodeo queens must display and the style of clothes, and our treatment of wild horses. I also found myself examining my notions of home. I’ve spent my entire life in the state of Florida, with some myths like the West Maile describes. Some of the myths about Florida being a wacky, zany place allow us to avoid thinking about the true darkness behind the crazy headlines—poverty, mental illness, homelessness. In much the same way, the spirit of adventure and toughness ingrained in the West allows them to avoid a story that fully considers the dark side of guns in America, considerations of native land, or where the message of resilience does harm.
Anything Will Be Easy after This: A Western Identity Crisis shows the complexities of the places we call home, how that place is ingrained in us, and how and why we must thoroughly examine and evolve our stories. While Maile honors the Western identity, she asks us to remember that when we claim something we inevitably change it. We would do well to remember we are all just passing through and to take the time to examine our past and ask ourselves if the stories that shape our identity inspire us to have true care and concern for others and for the things that will outlast us.