Brokeback Mountain by Anne Proulx: Gay Cowboy Story… And so Much More

I was first drawn to Anne Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain by my love of both short stories, and Proulx’s award-winning novel The Shipping News.

Since the release of Ang Lee’s film based on the 55-page novella, I’ve heard Brokeback Mountain referred to as many things, mostly centered around it being about ‘gay cowboys.’ Gay? Yes, they certainly are. The main characters are two men who love each other deeply, and passionately. Cowboys? Sort of. The two first met herding sheep… there were no cows to speak of. I think referring to Brokeback Mountain as nothing more than a ‘gay cowboy’ story is a bit dismissive of the heart-wrenching story about love and societal prejudices between the covers of this book.

Since the release of Ang Lee’s film based on the 55-page novella, I’ve heard Brokeback Mountain referred to as many things, mostly centered around it being about ‘gay cowboys.’ Gay? Yes, they certainly are. The main characters are two men who love each other deeply, and passionately. Cowboys? Sort of. The two first met herding sheep… there were no cows to speak of. I think referring to Brokeback Mountain as nothing more than a ‘gay cowboy’ story is a bit dismissive of the heart-wrenching story about love and societal prejudices between the covers of this book.

The story begins in Wyoming, in 1963. Two high school drop-out ranch hands (Jack and Ennis) are hired to herd sheep on Brokeback Mountain for the summer. As you can probably guess, this is where the love story begins. Alone on the mountain the two boys, barely in their twenties, begin to develop feelings for one another (as is Proulx’s usual style, readers are not spoon fed this fact, but still, it becomes clear.)

The summer ends and the two part ways, with not a word uttered about the magic kindled up on the mountain. This is a painful, yet not surprising fact since Wyoming in 1963 would be receptive to this brand of young love.

Four years pass without communication between the two. Both marry, have children (Ennis two girls, Jack a boy,) and begin their lives… neither able to shake the memory of the other, or what they shared on the mountain. One day Ennis receives a post card, general delivery, from Jack. A passionate reunion leas to yearly trysts thinly veiled as ‘fishing trips’ which continue for 20 years.

The more optimistic Jack believes the two could make it together. Leave their loveless marriages, buy a ranch, and be happy. Ennis remembers all too clearly a gruesome lesson he was taught as a boy about what happens to gay Wyoming men who try to build a life together.

I remained stoic and dry cheeked for the better part of this book. It was only toward the end, when Jack met an untimely and brutal end, of which Ennis was informed by Jack’s wife over the phone, that I cried. Jack’s wife did not tell Ennis the details of Jack’s passing, she made-up a story about how he died – either to protect the honor of her departed husband, or to soften the blow for the man who loved him.

Either way, at this point I cried for the men too afraid to be together. I cried for the wives who knew their husbands loved someone else. I cried for the society afraid to let the love these men shared exist.

What makes this story so beautiful is that Jack and Ennis are both men, and love like men. Too often, I think, more mainstream gay love stories make it seem as though one party is ‘the girl’. It is not so in Brokeback Mountain, and it is the brand of stoic, forbidden cowboy love that makes this story so real.

This poignant tale should strike a chord with anyone who has experienced forbidden love. It’s mostly sad, and parts are graphic, but they are all part of what makes this story great. In my opinion, this is an important piece to read.

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