Academic journal article Folklore

"Nothing to Lose": A Horsewoman and a Tall Tale

Academic journal article Folklore

"Nothing to Lose": A Horsewoman and a Tall Tale

Article excerpt


This essay examines the role of gender and the tall tale in an oral narrative collected from "Della Tombs," one of several working horsewomen living in a Western theme town, whom I interviewed during the summer of 1992.

Assuming the role of knowing figure in a humorous narrative is one of the ways that the horsewoman appropriates male cultural codes. As she recalls a humorous work-related event, Della Tombs reveals her methods for coping creatively and intelligently with a repressive, and even a potentially violent, experience in a wilderness setting. I will show how Della's story sheds light on the ways that gender negotiates the ongoing relationships between tourism, traditional notions of the American West, and the genre of the tall tale.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant--
             Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
         The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the children eased
              With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
          Or every man be blind--

Emily Dickinson

Horsewomen and Audience

During the summer of 1992, I conducted interviews with women in eastern Washington State who made their living primarily working with horses. I was collecting humorous stories for research on women's use of humour in a work setting typically dominated by men. Most of these stories came from a legally mandated Western theme town, population 350--located at the foot of the North Cascade Mountains. Like many Western theme towns across the United States, this small community carries on a tradition of catering to the tourist fantasy through the presumption of a viable cowboy culture.

Through research in the local museums and interviews with a number of women, I learned about the social dynamics of the community. To understand my informants' working life better, I also took pack trips and "cowgirled"(1) part-time for eight weeks. As I became more open to the community and my informants through practical experience with riding, packing, camping and working with tourists, I not only grew more sensitive to the ways in which humour functioned subversively in the horsewomen's tales, but also learned more about the specifics of their gendered position in this Western community.(2) And perhaps most importantly, I became increasingly aware of my own role as a specific kind of audience for a community inflected performance.

This Western town, like so many other small communities, is not particularly open to strangers. Permanent residents are still treated as outsiders after twenty years; tourists and absentee homeowners like me never really cross over the community's borderline. Property in the area is expensive, and rented housing is difficult to come by. When we add the role of "academic tourist," bent on ingesting elements of the community to nourish her own work, the situation becomes even more marked. The distance from my informants is evident--but not without a compensating gift. As I achieved a more informed interviewing position shaped by my own very specific role as a researcher, I became more aware of the various positions occupied by my interviewees as women, citizens and cultural workers.

By recording and discussing the anecdotes, stories and remarks of these horsewomen, I hoped to show how what I came to see as a recognisable folkloric pattern of horsewomen's humour conducted elemental critiques of the local community, images of the American West, and issues of popular culture by taking a position heavily conditioned by gender. What necessarily emerged were new images of working women formed in response to that pervading picture of the American West as it has been traditionally framed through literary and historical discourse.

In many of the stories I collected from the horsewomen, I could not help but note a number of elements characteristic of the tall tale, even though my research had not uncovered many references to women and that genre. …

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