Editor’s note: This review appears in the October 22, 2007, issue of National Review.
Unlike several of the memoirs that have climbed the bestseller list recently, Lynne Cheney’s portrait of her Wyoming childhood does not include a schizophrenic mother or an abusive father. Nor is it a tale of a poor girl from deprived circumstances who climbs the ladder and does spectacularly well, another familiar memoir theme.
It is, instead, a totally affectionate look back at her girlhood in the years after World War II in the prairie town of Casper, concluding with her high-school graduation in 1959. In the very first pages of the book she makes clear her attitude about the past she intends to explore: “To grow up in those years and in that place . . . was to be twice fortunate.”
And yet, hers is not a story without problems and pain. For Mrs. Cheney traces not only her own history but that of her and her husband’s Puritan and Mormon, Scots-Irish and German ancestors. Their experiences, generation after generation, as they moved westward were full of “the calamities and struggles that are part of the American story.” There are constant recollections of relatives’ failed businesses, lost “ragtown” houses, and early deaths (often caused by accidents on the farm). One story, which reads like a poignant excerpt from a Willa Cather novel, tells of a poor widow whose land was stolen by an unscrupulous banker. On her last day on the property, she went out to gather crab-apples, carrying a blanket, thinking she might sit awhile to say goodbye to the farm where her husband had burned to death in a kerosene fire and she and her son had long struggled. Cheney writes: “But when she whipped [the blanket] into the air, a young bull she had raised from a calf, charged, goring her in the stomach. [Her son] got her on the train for Omaha but in those days before penicillin was in use, she died.” There are other family stories almost as grim.
She also acknowledges that the Casper she grew up in was “not some crime- and sin-free Pleasantville.” There was, “behind the courthouse, stretching out to the West, a district known for gambling, bootleg liquor, and prostitution.” And her parents were not at all an idealized Father Knows Best ’50s couple. Her dad, who swigged Bourbon and Coke on family car trips, ultimately died of cirrhosis and had a fiery temper akin to that of the hero of his favorite television comedy, Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners. Her mother was often ill and, as the years went by, less and less tolerant of her husband’s rages. As a teenager, Cheney admits she often escaped across town to where Dick Cheney, her high-school boyfriend, lived, because his family “got through dinner without World War III breaking out, which definitely was different from the way my household functioned.”
She knew how to cope. After all, her pioneering forebears, even after great hardships, had remained full of grit and determination and the belief “that over the next river or the next mountain range, they would find a better life . . . and even if they didn’t they were sure their children would.” Her parents, no matter the difficulties or disappointments in their own lives, gave her “unconditional love” and unfailing interest and support. “It was a powerful mix,” she says, “particularly with the reinforcement that a small town can offer.”
Mrs. Cheney also writes that, during a time when boys presumably had more opportunities, “it never occurred to me that my chances . . . were diminished because I was a girl.” She read Wonder Woman comics, won spelling bees, and had role models of strong women like her diminutive hard-working grandmother — a seamstress who always wore housedresses even while hunting antelope. There were also her female teachers in both grade and high school who demanded the best from her and her classmates. And there was her own desire to achieve, whether by getting all A’s — her father told her anything less was unacceptable — or by being Wyoming’s baton-twirling champion, or by winning the American Legion’s Outstanding Girl of the Year Award. She achieved all her goals, encouraged by her mother, who served as her personal public-relations agent, made her baton-twirling costumes, and paid for private twirling lessons out of her police-department salary. She also had her daughter’s achievements reported on so regularly by the Casper Morning Sun that, by the time she was in high school and on her way to becoming Homecoming Queen, the paper could refer to her only by her first name.
What may create the greatest interest in this memoir is the story of her High School Musical–like romance with the future vice president. Dick Cheney was definitely the BMOC at Natrona County High: class president and co-captain of the football team. They dated their junior and senior years, and she wrote in his yearbook, “Dick, you are the neatest boy I’ve ever known.” But, hey, there was some drama too. At one point he decided, just before graduation, that they should “play the field.” Needless to say, this suggestion was not responded to positively. Besides throwing his gold football she had been wearing around her neck at him, the future Mrs. Cheney went home and huddled with her mother. Together, they called in reinforcements, her aunt and grandmother, who arrived bearing an array of attractive dresses. Her grandmother tailored a seductive black lace sheath for her to wear to the next dance to which she went with someone else. By the middle of the evening, Dick was asking her to dance, and then to take her home. His “playing the field” had lasted eleven days.
What is most important about this book is its recognition of the extraordinary confidence that she, Dick Cheney, their classmates, and so many Americans at the time felt about their lives, their futures, and their country. “To an unusual degree, I think, we grew up with the sense that you could do and be whatever you wanted.” Although she gives part of the credit for this positive attitude to their being Westerners under that big blue sky, it was actually prevalent throughout much of America: I myself grew up at around the same time in a far different place, a Long Island suburb. And yet much of my childhood — from the Wonder Woman comics I read, to a father who expected all A’s, to a feeling that if I worked hard I could achieve whatever I wanted — was very much the same. Mrs. Cheney says she knows her grandchildren cannot live as she once did, but her touching memoir makes one wish that they and other young Americans might possess what she evokes so well as she tells her own and her family’s story: the resiliency to deal with challenges, the determination to do one’s best, and an optimism about their future and America’s future.
– Myrna Blyth, a contributor to National Review Online, is the author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America and (with Chriss Winston) How to Raise an American: 1776 Fun and Easy Tools, Tips, and Activities to Help Your Child Love This Country.