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danielle nabokov
Fifteen of my eighteen students return the second day of class. “Well,” I say after they’ve filed in. “You are brave souls. I asked you to read an entire book the first day, and you still came back for more.”

Meredith—black and white bow in red hair—raises an eyebrow. Mano leans back in his chair and exclaims enthusiastically, “I like that book.” The students around him titter, and I silently thank him.

Jacinda, a brunette in high heels and jeans raises her hand. “Katie isn’t going to make it today. She sent you an e-mail and called your office but she wanted me to tell you too.”

I nod remembering a moon-faced girl with freckles.

“Her boyfriend smashed his finger in the gate working cows this morning,” Jacinda explains. “They rushed him to the hospital, and I guess it’s pretty serious because he has trouble with his blood clotting.” She shrugs. “I think she’s more worried about missing your class though. She’s texted me three times already.”

“Tell her not to worry. She’s allowed one unexcused absence.”

After taking roll, I lead the discussion of Mary.

“How do you say those names?” Paige asks.

“The only one I knew how to say was Mary,” Dakota jokes.

I write on the board the tough names: Ganin, Alvyorov, Lyudmila, and Podtyagin. We practice pronouncing them. They call Alvyorov “Alf.”

In Nabokov’s first novel, Lev Ganin, a young Russian émigré, is living in a boarding house in Berlin with other exiles. The story begins—quite brilliantly, I think—in a darkened stuck elevator. Ganin’s life is going nowhere.

I’m pleased everyone seems to have read the novel carefully. I ask them to break into small groups and to draw the separate story arcs and label them the pertinent events. They are industrious in looking up points from their books—all except Dakota. She has her back to me and from where I stand looks like she’s probably sleeping.

I walk toward her.

What I don’t know—but I will come to find out later in the year after she takes several more classes from me—is she’s living in her horse trailer. After a fight with her roommates, she packed her bags and moved into the front compartment where tack and supplies are stored. She goes to Paige’s for showers. Paige shakes her arm, and they continue with their task. I am pleased with their overall interest and engagement, but I also know Mary was the easiest text.

As I leave for the day, I head to the parking lot and see Dodges and Fords, Chevys and HEMIs, Flatbeds, supercabs, one-tons and dualies. These rigs sport various bumper stickers such as “Rodeo Naked” and “Cowgirl Up.” One license plate reads “PIGRIG” another “DODGNIT.” Many have windows cracked open so the loyal border collie waiting inside can get some fresh air, its owner in class. Some have hay bales in back, halters, twists of barb wire, beer cans.

Trucks are important to horse people; you can’t pull a trailer with Volkswagen Bug. In high school, my sister, Karen, drove a ¾ ton pickup with “DRAGN Y” on the license plates—the ranch brand. My first car was a sporty Celica Supra with DANI L on the plates. I did not want to be known as a cowgirl. When the weather was good, I drove my car the fifty-five miles to school. We used Dad’s Super Cab on the weekends for rodeos.

Dad started my sister Karen and me out in rodeos when we were still too small to get on our horses by ourselves. Mostly I barrel raced, pole bended, goat tail tied and calf daubed (the child’s version of break-away roping). Sometimes, I did well enough to win a new halter or saddle cover. Mostly, though, I wasn’t aggressive enough. Dad said I was daydreaming.

To help me focus, he signed me up for steer riding. I remember walking with him over to the chutes where the high school boys were spitting chew. I was only ten and scared. One of the boys gave me a fingerless glove to wear that was much too big. I remember the warm fuzzy back of the steer as I crawled down the inside of the chute to sit on him. Dad wrapped the rope around my hand, wrapped around the steer’s girth.

Someone flung the gate open. The steer launched himself into the open arena and jolted to the ground once, twice. I popped off his back like a cork from a champagne bottle. I hit the dirt hard and could feel my whole body burn. The earth was rough against my cheek, and I tasted salt and blood in my mouth. Dad only talked me into riding a steer one more time before he let me go back to barrel racing.

Many students at Western rope, ride or rodeo. They can major in Equine Studies here and earn degrees in natural horsemanship, equine management and pre-veterinary science. They can join the Equestrian Team, a varsity sport that travels to horse shows across the country and competes in English and Western riding. On the local level, there’s a horseman’s club and a driving club for those with draft horses. Our rodeo team is one of the best in the country.

Overall, the students who work with horses easily outnumber all the other clubs and sports—including football.

It’s hard to imagine a world more foreign to Nabokov born in Russia in 1899 to a noble family. He witnessed firsthand the effects of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and fled with his family to Europe after the Bolsheviks came to power. A few years later, his politically active father was shot by a Russian Fascist at a public lecture.

After studying literature at Oxford, Nabokov began writing novels, the first nine in Russian, and after moving to America and teaching at various reputable universities, he began to write in English. In 1955, he published Lolita to popular acclaim and stopped teaching to write fulltime.

A border collie peeking through a cab window barks at me.

I get in my car and drive away.

Return tomorrow for the next installment of “Teaching Nabokov to Cowgirls.” 

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Dr. Danielle Jones teaches writing and literature at the University of Montana Western. She has a Ph.D in Poetry from SUNY-Albany and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University. For the 2012-2013 academic year, she has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar Grant to Russia, where she will teach literature and work on her memoir, Mother Russia, Father Time.

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