The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

mountain lion

“Ralph was ten and Molly was eight when they had scarlet fever.”

When I got home from Colorado I was seized with the desire to read about the American West. Traveling through that dramatic landscape just demanded it. As much as I love reading books set in England or among the privileged in the eastern U.S. I often feel guilty that I don’t read more books set in my own neck of the woods. I’ve never been a fan of westerns (books or films) so I didn’t want to read anything too traditional (although I did start reading my first Louis L’Amour novel – and I like it) so I picked up The Mountain Lion which partly takes place on a ranch in Colorado.

Set in the 1920’s this novel is an unsentimental and brutal coming-of-age story. Ralph and Molly, siblings who have always been strange and independent, struggle for understanding among their family and peers. While Ralph takes a more conventional route to acceptance, Molly maintains her unique and dark take on life and has a harder time especially as Ralph increasingly distances himself from his odd sister. When the pair moves to Colorado to live on a cattle ranch with their Uncle Claude the isolated and rough landscape only intensifies their mutual animosity. As they separately try to understand what it means to be grown up and how they can make the transition without becoming one of the adults they despise, Uncle Claude becomes obsessed with killing a mountain lion that they briefly glimpse in the mountains above the ranch. An astonishing ending to the hunt is also an end to Ralph and Molly’s childhood.

Jean Stafford is a vivid storyteller who shows an utter lack of sympathy for her characters that I found disconcerting, but refreshing. Their weakness and folly is harshly paraded before us yet I understood and liked them the better for it. The confusion, bitterness and yearning of adolescence is painfully depicted so that we can identify with Ralph and Molly though we may not want to be in the same room with them. The darkness of the narrative never lets us grow too fond of these doomed teens.

I really enjoyed this book and I marveled that I know people exactly like Uncle Claude and the hands who work his ranch. I guess ranching people haven’t changed much in 80 years (and neither have teens). It was all very familiar to me while at the same time it felt so far away. I believe that it is a timeless American classic and that Jean Stafford is a remarkable writer. I will seek out more of her work in the future.

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8 thoughts on “The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

  1. Jean Stafford is a new author to me. This sounds like a powerful book – but not necessarily a comfortable read? (not that that’s a bad thing!)


    1. No, not a comfortable read, but satisfying in its agony. I forgot to mention in my post that Jean Stafford won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her collected stories – she is an exciting writer so I don’t understand why she is obscure.


  2. This sounds like an intriguing book, although one that sounds like it’s well outside the fictional settings I most often find myself in. I especially like your comment about identifying with the characters despite not wanting to be in the same room with them. Sometimes a book like that just hits the spot. This will go on my To Read list (along with many other NYRB books–lately I just feel like reading anything and everything they publish!)


    1. I am really attracted to NYRB’s too lately – I’ve amassed quite a little collection lately. The Mountain Lion is a gem and I highly recommend it!


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