Andrea Reads America: Montana

Andrea Reads America Montana book map
Andrea Reads America: Montana

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?

Winter Wheat by Mildred 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.

Fools Crow by James Welch 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.

Death Al Dente book cover Novel: Death Al Dente
Author: Leslie Budewitz
Setting: modern-day Jewel Bay, Montana
Categories: Mystery

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.

Andrea Reads America: Missouri

Andrea Reads America Missouri book map
Andrea Reads America: Missouri

I didn’t know much about Missouri when I first started reading the state — is it Southern or Midwestern? I would have said Southern, especially when I realized Missouri is Mark Twain’s home state. And then I read Stoner, a book that evokes the isolation and wide open spaces of an Edward Hopper painting, and one of the best books I’ve read on my US reading adventure. After reading Stoner, I checked the US map again to see if Missouri is in the Midwest, and sure enough, it is: it’s the next state east of the geographical center of the country. Missouri is a rich mix, and is home to some fine writing: it is the birthplace of Maya Angelou, and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, set in the Ozarks of Missouri, is another a top choice from my reading journey.

Stoner by John Willams book cover Novel: Stoner
Author: John Williams, taught and earned Ph.D. at U. of Missouri
Setting: early 1900s University of Missouri (Columbia, MO)
Categories: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Stoner is not about marijuana. It is the story of William Stoner, born to a poverty-stricken farming family in the early 1900s. Their days were spent laboring, their evenings spent in stoic silence in their unpainted wood plank house with dust seeping up through the floor.

Often during the hour or so between supper and bed, the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in a straight chair and the soft creak of a timber giving a little beneath the age of the house.

Stoner’s parents save pennies throughout his childhood to send him to the new agronomy college at the University of Missouri so he can learn better farming practices, bring that knowledge back, and help the farm survive and thrive to propel their family to a better place.

As the dutiful son he is, Stoner goes to college. But his agronomy courses don’t bring him to life: literature does.

This novel is of Stoner’s slow awakening, of a journey from innocence, poverty, apathy, and indifference to wisdom, intellectual riches, passion, and a true understanding of love. Throughout the book there is a vague sense that outside of his passion for literature, which also takes him a while to identify, Stoner doesn’t know himself. This novel is the development of a whole human, the path from uninformed notions and an acceptance of fate to truly understanding love, life, and ultimately oneself.

The blurb on the back cover likens William Stoner to an Edward Hopper painting, and that is a perfect description of the mood this book creates. I love Edward Hopper – the sober solitude he creates in many of his paintings — and I loved Stoner in the same way.

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell book cover Novel: Winter’s Bone
Author: Daniel Woodrell, born Springfield, Missouri, 1953
Setting: 2000’s Ozark Mountains, Missouri
Categories: Contemporary fiction, Grit-Lit

Holy buckets. The first time I read Winter’s Bone, I don’t remember thinking much of it but that it was raw and harsh. This time, though, the sentences crackled. I don’t think Woodrell uses the word “sparkle” a single time*, though the book is filled with winter. His Ozark snowscape is more ominous than the glittering one of a softer book; his Ozark winter snaps and slaps, creaks and cracks.

The morning was clear but bone-cracking cold.

Set in the modern-day Ozark mountains of Missouri, just north of the Arkansas border, Winter’s Bone is the story of Ree Dolly, teenage daughter of a meth cook who has gone missing. Ree cares for her two brothers and her addled, nonfunctional mother, and when she finds out her father put their house up for bond and likely wouldn’t be showing for his court date, she sets out across the icy landscape to find kin — other meth cooks in and out of prison, some of the hardest folks I’ve come across in literature — to try to find her father.

Thump Milton loomed over Ree, a fabled man, his face a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched.

But nobody, not even her kin, is talking. Winter’s Bone is a dark and utterly believable story of the strange family dynamics, the violence and the loyalties, of Ozark mountain people whose “ways was set firm long before hotshot baby  Jesus ever even burped milk’n shit yellow.”

Woodrell’s use of language and landscape to strengthen the harsh reality of the book was brilliantly done.

* I searched for the word “sparkle” in the text on my Nook and found the word appears once, in blood in a dream. The word “glitter” does not appear at all.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou book cover Book: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author: Maya Angelou, born 1928 in St. Louis, MO
Setting: 1930s Arkansas and Missouri; 1940s California
Categories: Autobiography

Maya Angelou, born in Missouri in 1928, was raised mainly by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. This book tells the story of Angelou’s childhood, starting in Stamps, then moving briefly to her mother’s home in Missouri when she was 8. In Missouri, at age 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. As you would expect, that story is heartbreaking, and the retribution her uncles rained down on the rapist paints a vivid picture of St. Louis in the mid-1930s.

Angelou was mute for some time after that. Eventually, her Missouri family tired of her “sullenness” and her unwillingness to speak, and she and her brother moved back to their grandmother in south Arkansas. Angelou was raised as a Southern Black, and she and her brother endured the hardship that life entails before her grandmother decided enough is enough. Her grandmother sent them to California to live with their mother when where they could have a better life, away from the prejudices and lynching ropes of the 1930s and 1940s South.

This book is less about the specific setting of Missouri or Arkansas, or even California, and is more about the experience of a young black girl and woman in America — a smart girl, an artistic girl, a girl who beat the odds and broke free, despite everything working against her to keep her down.

For Further Reading in Missouri

Books I’ve read:
– Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

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.

Andrea Reads America: Mississippi

Andrea Reads America map of Mississippi books
Andrea Reads America: Mississippi

That’s quite a set of authors: Donna Tartt, Pulitzer winner for The Goldfinch; William Faulkner, Nobel  laureate; and Jesmyn Ward, two-time National Book Award winner, first for Salvage the Bones and second for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I’m reading now. I’ve read multiple books by all of these authors, all of whom are expert at weaving a compelling story while making the setting a character in the book. Mississippi is hot and humid, filled with racial tension and poverty, and has that deep South mystery and darkness that spawns great literature. It was a pleasure to read this state.

salvage the bones book cover Novel: Salvage the Bones
Author: Jesmyn Ward, born 1977, DeLisle, Mississippi
Setting: coastal Mississippi at the time of Hurricane Katrina
Categories: Literary Fiction, African-American Fiction, Southern Fiction

Wow. Talk about setting being a character in a book. The Mississippi portrayed in this book is the bayou life of an African-American family filled with men, boys, and one girl, for the mother has died. Despite the poorness of the family, the scenes are rich. I was able to feel the sweltering heat, smell the sweat and mud, hear the barks and the slobbery panting of the story’s pit bull, China, raised and loved by Skeetah to fight in dog fights.

In the novel, Hurricane Katrina is making its way towards Louisiana and Mississippi. Our narrator, Esch, is the only female in the entire book, except for girls and women mentioned in passing, and she portrays the experience through that lens: the perspective of one girl in a sea of men.

There is deep love in this book. There is tenderness. The are also harsh realities, of poverty, of the strange conflicted world of pit bull fighting, of hunger, of a need to protect, of loss, and of aftermath. It is a beautiful book, and I am happily devouring Ward’s next one.

the sound and the fury book cover Novel: The Sound and the Fury
Author: William Faulkner, born New Albany, MS 1897
Setting: 1910 and 1928 Mississippi
Categories: Southern Gothic, Literary Fiction

Set in Mississippi in the early 1900s (1900-1928), The Sound and the Fury is the story of the Comspon family, and secondarily, the Bascoms who, according to the mother’s complaints, are not seen as being as high-born as the Compsons. There’s Benjy, the 33-year old who someone described on his birthday as being 3 for 30 years. There are Quentin the brother and Quentin the niece. There’s the mother closeted in her room because, as she says, “I am not one of those women who can stand things.” There are Jason the alcoholic father and Jason the ferocious brother, and there’s incest, and suicide, and swimming, and a wedding, and who knows what all else that I still haven’t figured out.

This is a difficult book to read, not because of the content (though if you are able to figure out the content, it is difficult, too), but because of the jumping back and forth through time, because multiple characters have the same name, and because the narrators are mentally unstable. Surprisingly, the difficulty of this book did not frustrate me or make me want to throw it against a wall, though that would be a valid reaction to it. Instead it made me want to know, what the hell is going on?

I read this book twice within the space of a week. I wrote more about the experience on my main blog, in The Sounds and the Fury: wut, so I don’t want to repeat myself here, but this book got into me. Two weeks after reading and re-reading it, I’m still thinking about it. It might be my favorite read of the year.

the little friend book cover Novel: The Little Friend
Author: Donna Tartt, born Greenwood, Mississippi,1963
Setting: 1960s Alexandria, Mississippi
Categories: Literary Fiction, Southern Fiction

I had no idea what to expect of this book. It began quickly with the murder of a child: a white boy hanged from a tree in the yard on Mother’s Day, like a lynching. Set in Mississippi in the 1960s, the book leads us through small town dramas of race and class that make you wonder, “Who did it?”

Then after a while, the story winds this way and that, like the snakes the young protagonist, Harriet, steals from a snake-handling wannabe preacher, who is brother to the most dangerous men in town — hard, rough, violent men who are amped on meth, and who cook and deal meth from their booby-trapped lab in the middle of the Mississippi woods, and who shoot at black folks for sport.  As the reader, I first wondered, “Wow, is Donna Tartt serving up a murder mystery?” as the murdered boy’s sister seeks revenge on his killers, who she must first find. Then, as the stories unfold, I wondered, “Maybe this isn’t about who did it after all.”

There are many layers in this novel, and as with all of her books, I find myself afterwards trying to figure it all out. The racial commentary is very clear, as is the class commentary, but I’m not sure what it all means in the end, or if it means anything at all.

What I do know is that Donna Tartt nailed the oppressive swampy heat and mosquito, snake-infested landscape of the low country of Mississippi. As the novel progresses, she nails the characters of the deep South as well: the dialect, the prejudices, the pride, and the oblivion.

This one was a page turner, and a brain-prodder as well. At the end I wanted to start at the beginning again, but I didn’t. Instead I kept a list of questions I want to ask when I come across someone who’s read it recently.

For Further Reading in Mississippi

Books I’ve read:
– As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Books I want to read:
Long Division, Kiese Laymon

 

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.