If nothing else, Gwen Petersen’s How to Shovel Manure (And Other Life Lessons for the Country Woman) gets down to the nitty-gritty of rural life, providing a step-by-step guide to the “good” chores like midwifing ewes on down to, well, the crap. Petersen’s style is as direct and intentionally funny—sometimes laboriously so—as the title suggests, which could make this a worthwhile read for armchair farm girls.
But…the subtitle. The unabashedly gendered subtitle, the narration that identifies you, the reader, as a Country Woman, a species distinct from the Country Man: This means that your dearly beloved thinks you’re only smart enough to complete tasks that involve the distribution or eventual production of manure. The capital-C, capital-W designation in the subtitle underlines a violently distracting subtext.
Petersen, no doubt, would prefer that readers find themselves pleasantly distracted by the book’s “everything but the kitchen sink—okay, the kitchen sink, too” design. The meat of the book is 32 “how-to” sections written in a second-person present narrative style—in other words, Petersen tells you, Country Woman, that you’ve just spilled hog’s slop all over your feet. In case that sort of immediacy doesn’t hold your attention, she’s interspersed the text with limericks, recipes and even a “You Know You Live On A Farm When…” listing that reads like a tired Jeff Foxworthy routine.
Overall, these additions actually enhance the book’s texture. Even the table of contents (subheading: “Parts and Innards”) is weirdly delightful, complete with cheeky paragraph-long commentaries on each chore. And Petersen’s inclusion of her cowgirl poetry, a source of personal and professional pride—most notably, she read an original work on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in 1986—gives the reader a chance to step back from the second-person spotlight and watch Petersen sing out her singular personality.
In contrast to its somewhat unconventional arrangement, the book’s structure rewards the conventional reader. The chores, for instance, are grouped by season, beginning with spring, so a cover-to-cover job achieves some sense of the cycle of farm life. I’d advise skipping over the fifth section, a collection of Country Woman miscellanea.
Here’s what you can’t skip over, however, and what I can’t get over. Petersen’s notion of a “Country Woman” is alienating, if not offensive. Say you’re a feminist—the kind who took calculus, refers to her mother as a “domestic goddess” and dreams that, one day, the glass ceiling will be nothing more than a shard in the eye of Unequal Opportunity Man. Say you can’t help but notice blatant sexism, even when it’s part of a long tradition.
There’s the aforementioned capital letters, the Country Man and Woman as archetypes, and the fact that Petersen devotes seven pages exclusively to gender-specific jokes. There’s the Country Man’s notion, referenced frequently, that his wife is not “smart enough” to handle many chores. Fine; farm tasks are usually divided by gender, and I bet a lot of guys get macho about it. But Petersen settles for confirming these stereotypes, time and again. She tells you that the Country Woman is good in the kitchen, but she can never manage to buy the correct tractor part. Even when she offers advice for outwitting the Hired Man or snidely comments upon the Country Man’s emotiointellesexual capacity, she’s still the proverbial “neck that turns the head.” She’s living in a sexist world, and she’s not fighting it. In fact, she’s inviting you into the kitchen for cookies and coffee.
Admittedly, Petersen tries to address this. In “The Legacy,” one of Petersen’s cowgirl poems, she receives an apron as a gift from her grandmother, and assumes that the woman simply “doesn’t know…/ the modern way of things,/ that wearing an apron and serving others/ is what enslavement means.” In the somewhat hokey narrative that follows, Petersen touches the gift and lives through the experiences of the strong Country Women who’ve donned aprons across the ages. After using it as a filter in the Dust Bowl, a tourniquet to stop her husband’s bleeding, and (get this) as a way to keep her clothes clean, Petersen gets over her “modern” hang-up and thanks Granny “softly for her present.”
Oof. That marks page 60, and about the time that a reader needs to deal with it or get out, because the gender divide is there, in blazing letters and not-so-subtle subtitles, and Petersen is over it.
“Get over it,” in fact, seems to be the final instruction of each chore section—after all, running a farm means putting up with a lot of crap, from the literal variety to a family of six that stops by for an unplanned, week-long “country getaway.” Calves get violent, gates are inevitably too tight, and “you” are no “SuperRancher,” but an average farmwife with placenta on her apron and a crooked saddle. Petersen has obviously accepted the tradeoff. She’s into Granny’s “present,” she’s happy to make endless manwiches and regale City Folk with descriptions of chicken slaughter. The sow’s litter, the clichéd sunrise—it’s worth it, to her.
This book has some charming qualities: an insider’s account of a 4-H fair, an overabundance of pluck, witty subheadings, a blow-by-blow guide to everything from branding a calf to fetching drunk workmen to making jam. If you can get over the explicit (and probably experientially accurate) sexism that she overmilks for laughs, then Gwen Petersen, Country Woman, has something to offer.