Justice O'Connor, at home on the range

February 03, 2002|By Ken Fuson | By Ken Fuson,Special to the Sun

Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, by Sandra Day O'Connor and H. Alan Day. Random House. 318 pages. $24.95.

The story of how a girl can grow up among cowboys, coyotes and rattlesnakes on a real-life Ponderosa in the bone-dry Southwest to become the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court has all the elements necessary for an inspiring, only-in-America memoir. It's a shame that Sandra Day O'Connor booted this wonderful opportunity to tell it.

There's much to admire about Lazy B, a collection of profiles and anecdotes from O'Connor's childhood, spent mostly on the family's 160,000-acre cattle ranch that straddled the high desert land between Arizona and New Mexico.

The pages are filled with her respect of nature, love of family and deep appreciation for the old-fashioned American verities of hard work, self-reliance and making do. (Although her brother, H. Alan Day, is a co-author, this is clearly O'Connor's book; the first-person accounts refer to her.)

What's lacking is the very thing the book promises -- a sense of how this hardscrabble background shaped O'Connor's values and propelled her to the nation's highest court. Whether this reticence stems from the Code of the West or judicial temperament, the result is an incomplete and ultimately unsatisfying account.

We learn what happened to her, and about the people she adored, but her interpretation of those events and people rarely rise above the level of can-do aphorism. What a ranch hand taught her: "The contentment of doing the best you can with what you have." What a cowboy taught her: "There were no excuses, only results."

Come on, Justice O'Connor, give us an opinion.

For example, she supplies warm, polished portraits of her parents -- Harry, called "DA," and Ada Mae, called "MO." Harry never expected to take over the cattle ranch, but he didn't complain, worked hard, saved every penny and was "exceedingly kind to everyone."

He also was a demanding perfectionist. O'Connor tells of the time she took lunch to the work crew, only to get a flat tire that she struggled to fix. When she finally arrived, her father replied: "You should have started earlier." Was she angry, frustrated, determined to prove she was worthy? Did DA light the fire of ambition in her? The only lesson O'Connor is willing to share is this: "No excuses accepted."

As for her mother, O'Connor says MO accepted her role on the dusty ranch without complaint, yet this was a college-educated, elegant woman who stocked her closets with magazines "about beautiful houses and handsome furniture." Is it not possible that MO, the only woman in a crew of men, longed for something more in life and that's why young Sandra was sent to live with grandparents and attend school in El Paso, Texas, only spending summers on the Lazy B? O'Connor, alas, does not address it.

What's left is a sentimental journey with a nature-loving tour guide. There are pleasing, often humorous stories of cattle round-ups, and bucking horses and a pet bobcat named Bob. O'Connor's writing ranges from textbook bland to captivating, particularly when she is describing the joys of a rare thunderstorm or an average day on the ranch with her father. Toward the end, she even risks a rare judgment: "The world will not be a better place if ranching ceases on the public lands of this nation."

Sandra Day O'Connor has lived a rich and remarkable life. Lazy B supplies a tantalizing glimpse into how it began, but it will likely require a biographer to connect the dots between the girl who lived like a pioneer and the woman who became one.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at the Des Moines Register.

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