I’ve never been to Montana, but I must have had a preconceived notion of what it was like because I was surprised by the books I read. I’m not sure what I had in mind about Montana — maybe the endless grazing land and grizzly bears of the Lonesome Dove cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Those were the days when the land was empty of whites, when it was still a frontier. And of course, Larry McMurtry is a master of setting, and of making you feel like you’re actually in dusty Texas or frigid Montana when really you’re on your couch reading a book.
These books felt different from that, though. Fools Crow came closest, with its descriptions of landscape, sky, and Native American life. And Winter Wheat was second, because I am a sucker for grains and plant life, and because its descriptions of Montana winter delivered on what I expecting for those hard cold months. Death al Dente was just a fun read set in a small modern village in Montana, so that really could have been almost anywhere.
As much as I enjoyed these books, they didn’t give me the Montana I was looking for: lakes and big skies and endless grasses. Do I have the wrong impression of Montana?
Novel: Winter Wheat
Author: Mildred Walker
Setting: 1930s and 1940s central Montana
Categories: Fiction, Coming of Age
This book, checked out from the Virginia Tech library and signed in pencil by the author on June 12, 1945, was exactly the book I needed in February as I restlessly anticipated spring.
In winter there is no place to be by yourself. Dad must have felt that all these years. And there’s nothing important to do except the chores. Winter is a waiting.
Filled with descriptions of working the earth, the 16 hour days of harvesting, waiting out the winter through blizzards that draw children outside and freeze them to death, and then finally hearing water drip, and feeling the ground thaw to mud, and seeing the green of wheat emerge, this was 100% my kind of book.
It’s just winter wheat to the people who raise it, only to me it means more than that. It means all the winter and all the cold and the tight feeling of the house in winter, but the rich secret feeling I have, too, of treasure in the ground, growing there for us, waiting for the cold to be over to push up strong and green.
But it wasn’t just the earthiness of it that I loved. Winter Wheat is a story of coming to understand love — that it’s not just the golden, ripe harvest, but is the invisible strength underground that survives the harshness of winter to push up in spring, again and again and again. Love is something deeper than laughter and prettiness: it survives lashings and storms.
This novel is the coming of age story of Ellen, grown daughter of a Russian mother and New England father, who grew up on a Montana wheat ranch, in love with the sky and the wheat and the wildflowers of her home. The book begins with the harvest that is profitable enough to send her away on her first year of college: her first year away from home, where she falls in love with someone who had a more refined upbringing than her own.
When she brings him home to her unpainted ranch house, her peasant mother, and her war-injured father, for the first time she sees a tarnish on her life. She sees the bad that she never saw before.
And with this she begins to grow up. Winter Wheat is Ellen’s story of deepening and maturing as a person, and of coming to know what love really is.
Novel: Fools Crow
Author: James Welch
Setting: post-Civil-War 1860s Montana Territory
Categories: Native American Fiction
It was one of the rare warm days of that winter, and the snow had melted just enough so the metal-rimmed wheels of the big wagons dug into the skin of the earth and left a long, twisting, dirty trail far to the south. The sun rode close and yellow and caused the prairies to shine with a brilliance that made men wipe tears from their eyes.
This is a beautiful, sad book: an intimate view of native American life on the eve of its destruction. It is the story of a young man — a Pikuni — named White Mans Dog in his youth, but who through the narrative develops a new name as he matures and surprises everyone by quietly performing brave and impressive feats. His people begin calling him something more respectable — Fools Crow — after an act of cleverness on his part during a Crow raid.
This book was refreshingly different from the others I’ve read on my cross-USA journey. Written by a Native American author, the language names things as the are and as imbued with the spirituality inherent in them: the sun is Sun Chief, winter is Cold Maker.
There is great beauty and reverence in this book. Fools Crow and his people had deep respect for the land, the animals, and the elements that the lived so close to and were a part of. The medicine rituals, codes of honor, values, and attentiveness to right and wrong resonated with me. It is heartbreaking to read a book like this — a book of a peaceful life disrupted by conquerors, of death by new diseases — and know how it ultimately turns out.
I am grateful to James Welch for writing this and opening a window to this world to me.
Novel: Death Al Dente
Author: Leslie Budewitz
Setting: modern-day Jewel Bay, Montana
I didn’t write notes about this book, but I remember it being a fun read. Set in summer in a small tourist town in Montana, it was quite different from the other Montana books I read. It is filled with gourmet food, blue skies, and clean air, and it made me want to eat outside under cloudless blue and drink cold white wine. As with many mysteries, this book created a sense of place that I wanted to be a part of. If I were to visit Montana, I would want to eat in this little town.
For Further Reading in Montana
Books I’ve not yet read:
– Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
– A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean
– Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt
– The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.