Write 'em, Cowgirl : Traditionally, American writers have cast the West as adventureland for boys, a proving ground for macho glory. But now, a new breed of women writers is celebrating a compassionate frontier and telling stories about spirituality, families and ecology in a distinctive voice.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blood-and-guts just wasn't her bag.

As a little girl of 8, Pam Houston went to the movies one day in Bethlehem, Pa., and began sobbing uncontrollably when farmers brutally killed a family of otters. The usher had to walk her out, and when she got home, Houston did what came naturally: She sat down in her room and rewrote the ending.

"I changed the story because I didn't want blood and I didn't want anyone to die," she recalls. "I wanted a more peaceful ending. I took a whole new approach."

Nearly 23 years later, Houston is still putting her own spin on things, but now she's rewriting one of America's most cherished myths: the cowboy and the Western frontier. Along with a handful of other women authors, she's serving up a bold new take on an old story, a more humane view of the West that would make John Wayne roll over in his grave.

Forget the barroom brawls of yesteryear. Houston and her colleagues--including Barbara Kingsolver, Gretel Ehrlich and Terry Tempest Williams--are blazing literary trails that few men have explored. They're celebrating a compassionate frontier and telling stories about spirituality, families and ecology in a voice all their own.

Some explore the New West with probing views of male-female relationships, while others delve into mythology and magic. Yet a common theme runs through their works: Rather than taming or subduing the land, they say, it's time for Westerners to coexist with the great outdoors and live peacefully with one another. It's time, as one puts it, to kill the cowboy.

"The traditional view of the West is dominantly male, so women writers are free to be more creative," says Patricia Nelson Limerick, a leading Western historian at the University of Colorado.

"You can't buy into the cowboy myth if you're a woman because you don't have the right anatomy," she says. "But in the long run, the boys are trapped in this tough-guy role."

To be sure, not all male writers present a cliched version of the frontier. John Nichols, William Kittredge and the late Wallace Stegner have all examined deeper truths, and their works reflect the same concerns as the new women's literature. Yet they've been the exception.

For the most part, American writers have cast the region as adventureland for boys, a proving ground for macho glory. Authors like Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour and others have burned this image into the national subconscious, like the sizzling brand on a fatted calf.

But now it's time to circle the wagons. Here come the women.

In her acclaimed collection of short stories, "Cowboys Are My Weakness," Houston knocks the Marlboro Man flat on his can. With lusty, mocking humor, she rounds up a corral full of modern cowboys who are fumblingly insecure and emotionally inarticulate. The tales are told by a woman who has come West in search of a real man, only to fall for one tight-lipped loser after another. She grows weary, staggering from one down sleeping bag to the next.

"I've always had a thing about cowboys," the woman says, "maybe because I was born in New Jersey. But a real cowboy is hard to find these days, even in the West." When she meets one, he tells her: "I'd love to give you a great big kiss. But I've got a mouthful of chew."

Other writers are hunting even bigger game.

In her latest novel, "Pigs in Heaven," Kingsolver tells the story of an Arizona woman who is raising an adopted Cherokee daughter and who flees with her child when the tribe attempts to reclaim the girl. As she does in previous books, the author grapples with themes of multiculturalism, ecological destruction and a search for community.

Meanwhile, Alison Baker explores the zany nature of cowboy psychology in stories like "How I Came West and Why I Stayed." Toni Volk has written "Montana Women," a vivid novel about two sisters in the 1940s. And Sharman Apt Russell, a New Mexico author, has published "Kill the Cowboy," a provocative collection of ecology-oriented essays.

Western-themed books also have been written by Williams ("Refuge"), Judith Freeman ("The Chinchilla Farm"), Ehrlich ("The Solace of Open Spaces"), Leslie Marmon Silko ("The Almanac of the Dead") and Deirdre McNamer ("Rima in the Weeds"). More are on the way, prompting some experts to speculate that a new literary genre may be emerging.

In another sense, however, these books are nothing new. Recent Western scholarship has unearthed a treasure-trove of journals and diaries kept by women during America's tumultuous frontier years. Although they've never received the same attention as books by men, these documents offer a rich and revealing perspective on the true role that women played.

"We have this misleading picture that the good little woman wore a sunbonnet and stood quietly by her men while the West was won," says Baker, who lives in Oregon. "But if you read these diaries, you learn how hard the West was on women. If the man was clearing the woods, the woman was often right by his side. If he got killed, she carried on alone."

That image was conveyed earlier this century in Willa Cather's Nebraska prairie novels, like "My Antonia," "A Lost Lady" and "O Pioneers!" But it's only recently that Western feminist writers have found their way into the mainstream. Like the pioneers, they've traveled long distances--physical as well as psychological--before discovering their creative voices.

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For Kingsolver, the trip west began on a poor farm in Kentucky. She had developed a taste for writing and, after moving to Arizona in the early 1980s, she began writing free-lance articles. Eventually, Kingsolver produced highly praised novels like "The Bean Trees" and "Animal Dreams." She's been called one of the most important new voices in Western fiction.

"Ever since birth, we (women) were handed dolls and the boys were handed guns," she says. "Naturally, when women began writing about the West, the focus would change. How could it not? I don't want to type-cast people, but we bring a very different perspective to things."

At the risk of sounding cliched, Kingsolver explains: "Women tend to write more about relationships and relatedness than men. It's about a sense of self in the context of others and so, instead of something about a cowboy, you'll read about a midwife. You'll read books about women rooted in community, not some guy who's been living his whole life on the lam."

It's a fresh new perspective, but some writers believe Western literature succeeds best when it humanizes men as well. Ehrlich, who left California in 1975 to settle in Montana, says a key feature of her essays and novels is that she treats men with sensitivity.

"I've written about the tenderness of a lot of men I've worked with," says Ehrlich, who for years traded ranch work for rent in Montana. "Ranching is really a maternal occupation, because you're raising cows and calves. It's more about being a nurturer. So in that sense, the Hollywood stereotypes of rough-and-tumble Western men make me want to puke."

Sometimes, you want to ditch them altogether. In "How I Came West and Why I Stayed," Baker imagines just that. It's late at night, the snow is falling and the reader enters a tough bar in Colorado filled with miners, hunters and ranch hands. Most of them are women.

"I like to imagine worlds where there aren't men," she says. "And I don't want to make a big deal out of it. It's just the idea of reversing the roles completely and putting women up front. In the story, there's anger and tension in the bar. But it ultimately dissolves into some form of community. And we don't hear that when we write about men, do we?"

No way, says Baker. We hear bodies hurtling out of saloon doors and six-guns blazing in the hills. The sound of boys at play. But for Houston, the noise of the West is something far more personal: It's the sound of a cowboy galloping away from her in a cloud of dust. Again.

Born in Pennsylvania, raised in New Jersey and schooled in Ohio, Houston bicycled from Nova Scotia to Vancouver after graduating from college and promptly fell in love with the big open spaces. She didn't take up writing until she zoomed through her early 20s as a ski bum and waitress in Colorado. She also worked as a guide on river raft tours, a job she still enjoys. But then a bell began ringing in her head: It was time to find a career.

Enrolling in graduate school at the University of Utah, Houston began writing about her long-running love affair with the American cowboy. You know, the tall guy in lizard-skin boots who runs from nothing, except commitment. Mr. Unattainable and his faithful horse, Duplicity.

"The woman in my book has come West in search of a story to tell about herself," says Houston. "And in that sense, she has the traditional frontier spirit. But she confuses the mythic West with the reality of the cowboy. She confuses the myth with the man."

Stumbling from one bizarre relationship to another, the woman in "Cowboys Are My Weakness" starts out believing that if she's going to find a place in the West, it will be next to a big, heroic guy. Whether she's skiing, hunting, rafting or climbing mountains with him, it's the man who winds up defining--and then abruptly abandoning--the landscape they've shared.

"Finally, it dawns on her that she can translate that landscape for herself," says Houston. "She doesn't really need a man. She can have her own relationship with the West."

Some critics have questioned Houston's stories, accusing her of glorifying what one called "an archaic form of masculinity." Others have wondered whether the kind of woman she writes about really exists in the modern world. Isn't this just another form of sexism?

Houston fires back: "Do I know women who find themselves in abusive relationships but are still drawn to a certain kind of man? Of course I do. I'm a feminist, no question about it, but I just don't think every woman in America is involved with a bookish New Age man."

These days, Houston is riding a wave of critical acclaim. She's been toasted by reviewers from coast to coast, given readings to packed college audiences and appeared on television shows, all of which are rare for a first-time author. Someone else might let it go to her head. But true to her roots, Houston is wary of all these strangers and a bit restless.

"The town I live in (Park City, Utah) is condo-izing too fast for me," she complains. "So my husband and I are looking for a quieter place. Maybe someplace up in Montana. Maybe we'll just pack up the truck, take the dogs and find a place that makes 'em happy."

It's enough to make you whistle "Happy Trails." But to Limerick, that's the point.

"This new literature by women is such a change from all those tired stories in the New Yorker about married couples in Connecticut falling apart by the swimming pool," she says.

"There's a whole barely written experience for women in this region. And it's just starting. It's good, hearty nutrition for the soul."

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