© 2020 Elise Atchison













novel forthcoming from

Sowilo Press










Artists Field Guide to Greater Yellowstone

anthology forthcoming from

Trinity University Press












Unearthing Paradise: Montana Writers in Defense of Paradise


Elk River Books Press









An Elk River Books Reader: Livingston and Billings Area Writers


Bangtail Press









Montana Quarterly









Elk River Arts & Lectures






by Elise Atchison



This page includes some of the book reviews that I’ve written over the years, many of which appeared in Montana Quarterly. (Please note that I am not currently doing book reviews.)





DISGRACED by Gwen Florio

EDWARD UNSPOOLED by Craig Lancaster

A BLOOM OF BONES by Allen Morris Jones

YELLOWSTONE: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart by David Quammen

ALL I WANT IS WHAT YOU’VE GOT: Stories by Glen Chamberlain

FIFTY-SIX COUNTIES by Russell Rowland

THE NAMES OF THE STARS: A Life in the Wilds by Pete Fromm

DOG RUN MOON: Stories by Callan Wink

FOR A LITTLE WHILE: New and Selected Stories by Rick Bass

SWIFT DAM by Sid Gustafson

THE ACTOR by Beth Hunter McHugh

SURVIVORS SAID: Stories by Matt Pavelich

CROW FAIR: Stories by Thomas McGuane


VAGABOND SONG by Marc Beaudin


FAR ENOUGH: A Western in Fragments by Joe Wilkins


THE BIG SEVEN: A Faux Mystery by Jim Harrison

MAÑANA by William Hjortsberg

BITTER CREEK by Peter Bowen

DIRT WORK: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl

THE CARRY HOME: Lessons from the American Wilderness by Gary Ferguson


BLOOD WILL OUT: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn


KEVIN RED STAR by Daniel Gibson and Kitty Leaken





LIGHT OF THE WORLD by James Lee Burke




Bangtail Press, 2020


I devoured this smorgasbord of essays, reviews, and articles about art and artists west of the Mississippi. The book emerges from a lifetime immersed in art, drawing on the vast knowledge and almost limitless curiosity of the author. The subjects span from traditional to contemporary, collecting over three decades of Thompson’s thoughts on an eclectic group of visual artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians. What makes these wide-ranging explorations so delicious is that Thompson takes us into the attics and basements of the artist’s soul, digging up fresh aspects of the artist’s life and work that we don’t usually see.


Thompson writes engagingly about classic western artists such as Charlie Russell, who “gave voice to contemporary Americans’ deep-seated misgivings about the consequences of urbanization and industrial development,” and George Catlin, who painted over 500 portraits of Native Americans, but who spent his last years stalking the halls of the Smithsonian Institution in his bristly beard and buckskin, as trapped as an wild animal in a zoo. Thompson gives us glimpses of Kiowa artist T.C. Cannon, actor and activist Margot Kidder, and literary gadfly Peter Bowen, among many others. He explores the violence and pathos of filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, who in his later years holed up in his Murray Hotel suite “drenched in paranoia,” and would “sit in the suite’s entranceway snorting cocaine and cradling a .44 magnum, as he blasted through the door at imaginary assailants.” (Thompson moved into his apartment after his death.) Thompson writes intimately about contemporary western artists such as Parks Reece, who NPR called “the Royal Jester of modern western art.” He traveled to the mountain retreat of sculptor Amber Jean, who recently carved a snow leopard in the palace of Bhutan’s king, and he journeyed to the remote ranch of feminist rancher-artist Cathryn Reitler who, like Judy Blunt, pushed back against rigid traditional roles imposed on rural women.


Thompson doesn’t shy away from exploring the complexities and contradictions of art. He freely blurs the line between high and low art, traditional and experimental art, commercial and noncommercial art. He points out that the same art that moves and inspires us can also wreak havoc—as the beautiful book-turned-movie A River Runs through It “sanctified fly fishing as a near-religious activity and drew countless would-be celebrants to the state,” causing rapid population growth, gentrification, and sprawl. Art, like the universe, invites investigations but not delineations. Fired On encapsulates the slippery spirit of art and artists in the West, adding texture and flavor to the unruly beast we call art.




Unsolicited Press, 2019



In his new story collection Blood Fire Vapor Smoke, Shann Ray once again proves he is a master at depicting the darkness and light that reside in every human soul. These stories range across time and place, exploring the generational violence that is passed down from grandfather to father to son in a never-ending cycle of violence and revenge. We are dropped in the middle of the killing fields of the Sand Creek Massacre, the bombed-out lands of a war-torn African nation, and the broken homes of families shattered by betrayal and hardened hearts. The overarching question Ray asks is how, among the rubble of human cruelty and violence, do we find the hope and strength to go on? How do we forgive the unforgivable? Is it possible to love someone who gouged out your last good eye? Someone who killed your son? Someone who killed all of your people? These stories are relentless in not looking away from the horrors of humanity. There are no easy answers here, but in the bleak theater of blood and despair, we see glimmers of hope in the beauty of blue sky over a battlefield, in the flight of a flamingo rising from the devastated land, in the tender touch of those we thought we hated. Ultimately, Ray suggests redemption is found in forgiveness and love, and perhaps we would never be able to see the light if we had never known the darkness. These stories will burn you, but you will come out renewed.



DISGRACED by Gwen Florio

Midnight Ink, 2016


Lola Wicks is back and better than ever in Gwen Florio’s third novel Disgraced. This book has all the qualities of a good mystery novel:  Interesting protagonist? Check. Compelling storyline? Check. Vivid writing? Check. Florio honed her writing skills during her thirty-year career as a journalist reporting on everything from the Columbine shootings and the Missoula date rape trials to the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Those experiences lend depth and authenticity to her fiction.


Lola is a gutsy, lusty, decidedly undomesticated woman who is “more at home in a newsroom than she was anywhere else.” She is an obsessive reporter who is incapable of letting a good story slip through her fingers, a trait that leads her into all sorts of trouble. There’s plenty of action and suspense in the form of wild car chases, spine-tingling violence, and an unconsummated sex scene that nearly burns the paper it’s written on. But this is also a psychological mystery that delves deep into the interior ravages of war and PTSD, entrenched prejudice against Native Americans, and the high costs of being a woman in the military. The suspense lies not only in figuring out the who and the what, but also the why—why are these young men and women returning from Afghanistan so shattered?


The story begins when Lola sets out on a vacation to Yellowstone with her three-legged dog Bub and her five-year-old daughter Margaret, an intrepid sidekick who is often one step ahead of Lola. As a favor to a friend, Lola stops at the Casper, Wyoming airport to pick up Palomino “Pal” Jones, a soldier returning from Afghanistan. We are immediately thrown into chaos when another soldier shoots himself at the airport.


Palomino Jones is a mess, carving enigmatic slashes in her arm and subsisting on nothing but canned ravioli and bourbon. Her surly silence and lack of hygiene repel Lola. But she quickly realizes that Pal is deeply troubled by her time in Afghanistan, “her spirit weighing heavier than all of her body parts combined.”


When Lola learns that of the six young soldiers from Pal’s small town of Thirty, one died in Afghanistan, one committed suicide, and most of the others are spiraling out of control, she thinks, “Such a small group. Such big trouble. Such a good story. ... What the hell happened to those folks over there? ... She’d never seen a single community hit so hard in such a short time.” A newshound hot on the scent of a story, she is “back on the chase, slipping into the old well-oiled moves.”


But when she starts investigating she is given multiple, conflicting stories. As the lies pile up, she is told that “people have been through enough” and it would be best for everyone if she would just drop the story. Lola doesn’t buy it. “Isn’t the truth always better?” she says. “It’s messy, but so is war.”


Disgraced takes on some of the most pressing issues of our time: the triple scourges of war, racism and sexism. How do we face such seemingly insurmountable problems? Not through silence and lies, Lola insists. “Cowboy up, sissy.” Seek the truth. Speak up. And read this book.



EDWARD UNSPOOLED by Craig Lancaster

Missouri Breaks Press, 2016


If there is one overarching reason to read Craig Lancaster’s “Edward” novels, it’s Edward Stanton. He’s one of the most fascinating characters to come along in a while: both endearing and exasperating, highly flawed but lovable, and utterly original.


We first met Edward in Lancaster’s breakout novel 600 Hours of Edward when he had fallen down the rabbit hole of his Asperger’s Syndrome. Edward’s unchecked behavioral oddities left him friendless, jobless, in legal trouble for harassing the country music star Garth Brooks, and completely isolated from the world around him. Through therapy and medication, he slowly learns to manage his condition enough to connect with others and reclaim his life.


At the beginning of Lancaster’s current novel, Edward Unspooled, Edward is married and expecting his first child. He has come a long way, but despite his successes he is still wrestling with his own idiosyncratic behaviors. He’s obsessed with recording detailed data on the weather, his exact waking times, and even the times and places of “sexual congress” with his wife. He ritualistically watches and re-watches old Dragnet reruns. He kisses his wife eight times every morning and eight times every evening, and he becomes agitated if any of his routines are altered.


“I have a fact-loving brain,” Edward declares repeatedly. “I don’t like conjecture. ... I don’t like hope. I prefer facts.” Having a child on the way awakens Edward’s paralyzing fear of uncertainty. He worries about the “hundreds of things that can go wrong in pregnancy and childbirth.” He frets about whether the child will “emerge from the womb an asshole and make our lives miserable.” His wife Sheila suggests he write letters to their unborn child as a way to deal with his anxieties, and those letters form the structure of this book, an epistolary novel that is crackling with humor and pathos and the universal struggles of everyday life. Edward’s problems feel urgent and true, and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep us reading.


Perhaps Edward’s most socially challenging behavior is his tendency to blurt out whatever he’s thinking with little thought of how it will affect others, which causes ongoing friction with the people around him. Yet it is this very characteristic that makes spending time with Edward so enjoyable. In a world that often rewards duplicity, a world that favors superficial hypocrisy over genuine sincerity, it’s pleasantly refreshing to hang out with someone as straightforward and uncomplicated as Edward Stanton. Even though society labels his directness as abnormal, it makes him a rare and treasured thing: an honest man. We can’t help agreeing with him when he says: “Some people are ... unable to say things simply and directly. ... It must make them feel better or more important. ... Such people are not to be trusted.”


Edward Unspooled is the story of one man in conflict with himself and the world, a man who finds a way to live life to the fullest in spite of, or maybe even because of, his flaws and setbacks. There is universal appeal to this literary hero’s journey: if Edward can overcome his seemingly insurmountable problems, then perhaps we can all rise above the messy challenges of our lives. At one point Sheila says: “Your ways don’t always make sense to me, but I love you.” Readers with any heart will feel the same way.



A BLOOM OF BONES by Allen Morris Jones

Ig Publishing, 2016


Whenever I read an Allen Morris Jones story, I’m always amazed that such powerful, explosive writing comes out of such a quiet and unassuming man. Jones is a meticulous sculptor of narrative with a keen eye for story and a clear love of language. His new novel, A Bloom of Bones, is both a traditional murder mystery and a literary investigation into the complicated formation of self.


Jones starts the book off with a bang. In the first chapter we watch in horrified awe as Buddy and his 12-year-old stepson Eli bury a body on their ranch, a task that requires sawing off legs with a knife and shoving the stiffening body into its not-so-final resting spot. What magnifies the intensity of this scene is the fact that the gruesome act takes place without any explanation or context. There is no mention of how the dead man, Pete, met his demise or why these two seemingly likable people are burying him in such a ghastly manner. They are just taking care of business, disposing of the body with the same matter-of-fact practicality they would if they were fixing fence or feeding cattle.


The second chapter jumps to 30 years later. Buddy has died, and Eli is an acclaimed poet still living on the Rattletrap Ranch near Jordan, Montana. Chloe, his literary agent from New York, comes to visit, and a love affair sparks between the rural writer and the urbane Chloe. She has tattoos of Vonnegut around her ankle and Rilke down her back; he has the scars of place: a kneecap ripped by barbed wire, a shoulder pocked with birdshot, a foot split with an axe. She comes from the New York literati; his poetry is infused with the “suction slip of intestines from a deer, the hot wash of amniotic fluid from a heifer, the weighty obligations of an unfixed fence.” But the past has a way of punching its way into the present. Pete’s body erodes from the hillside, and Eli is immediately under suspicion by the small town that never truly accepted him as one of their own.     


The book moves back and forth between Eli’s childhood and the present, gradually painting an intricate portrait of rural ranching life on the vast windswept plains of eastern Montana. We come to know his stepfather’s pragmatism, his mother’s depression and increasing instability, and his 14-year-old sister’s adolescent yearnings that can never be fully quenched on that hardscrabble ranch in the middle of nowhere. “To the east, it was fifty miles of dirt until you hit the two saloons and five churches of Jordan; to the west, nothing but the Musselshell.” Whereas his sister wants only to break away from her stark life, Eli embraces his role as the adopted son of a rancher, learning the ropes while also trying to emulate the toughness and stoicism that he thinks are valued in this brutal place.


Eventually we learn what happened on that fateful day 30 years ago, but more importantly we learn why it happened, how the harsh and beautiful landscape can shape the people who live there in the same way a hillside is carved by wind and water. We often ponder what makes a Montana story, and this book is one answer to that question: place forms character and shapes fate in a land so vast and uninhabited as the eastern Montana prairies.


Jones’s fierce writing, his knack for creating complex stories and nuanced characters, and his ability to bring to life the beauty and terror of the Montana landscape earns him a place on your bookshelf between This House of Sky and Winter in the Blood. Allen Morris Jones has written his way into the pantheon of fine Montana writers.



YELLOWSTONE: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart by David Quammen

National Geographic Books, 2016


David Quammen has been writing about science and nature for over 30 years, from his early “Natural Acts” column in Outside magazine to his most recent book, Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart. Quammen is a boots-on-the-ground investigative journalist who transforms his observations and research into powerful narratives about humans and the natural world. He knows how to bring science alive on the page, whether he’s thrilling us with tales of deadly viruses and man-eating tigers or he’s breathing life into Darwin and island biogeography. 


In Yellowstone, he takes on the magnificent grandeur and tangled controversies of our first national park. The book is an expansion of the recent National Geographic issue on Yellowstone, the first issue ever written by one author—Quammen. The photography in this book is stunning. Along with Todd Wilkinson’s informative captions, the lavish imagery adds a deeper dimension to our understanding of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.


Yellowstone is a hotspot in more ways than one. It’s a wonderland of geysers, fumaroles, and mud pots, but with four million visitors it is also boiling over with the numerous conflicts that swirl at the nexus between humans and nature. Quammen provides a fascinating overview of these complex issues, showing how, humans have an enormous impact on the park and surrounding lands. We introduce lake trout into Yellowstone Lake , nearly wiping out native cutthroat trout and causing unintended consequences for grizzlies, elk, bald eagles, and trumpeter swans. We bring in diseased cattle that infect bison and elk with brucellosis, and then we slaughter migrating bison (but not elk) ostensibly to keep them from re-infecting cattle. We exterminate wolves, a key predator in the ecosystem, and then we reintroduce them, but “restoring wolves to Yellowstone ... does not necessarily fix all the problems that removing wolves from Yellowstone caused. ... Everything is connected. That’s the first lesson not just of ecology but also of resource politics.”


“Yellowstone is a wild place. Sort of,” Quammen says. “It’s a wild place that we have embraced, surrounded, encompassed, riddled with roads and hotels and souvenir shops, but not tamed, entirely. It’s filled with wonders of nature—fierce animals, deep canyons, scalding waters—that are magnificent to behold but fretful to engage. ... Walk just 200 yards off road ... and you can be killed and eaten. ... This is the paradox of Yellowstone and of most other national parks in America that we have added since: wilderness contained, nature under management, wild animals obliged to abide by human rules. It’s the paradox of the cultivated wild.”


There are no easy answers to these dilemmas, but one thing is clear: humans have an oversized and increasingly detrimental effect on the other species we live with. Whether we’re building McMansions in the middle of ancient migration corridors or we’re loading a bison calf into the back of our SUV, the wild animals are often the ones who pay the price for our careless actions. So how do we save this special place? The answer “isn’t more hotels, roads, and parking lots. If anything, the human footprint needs to shrink to protect the wildlife.” We need to better understand the ecosystem we live in; we need to adopt a “tone of humility” in landscape; and we need to find less invasive ways to move into the future. This book is an excellent place to start.



ALL I WANT IS WHAT YOU’VE GOT: Stories by Glen Chamberlain

Dock Street Press, 2016


Glen Chamberlain’s second short story collection, All I Want Is What You’ve Got, includes twelve finely wrought stories that take us down the long dirt roads and into the homes and lives of small town Montana.


Many of these stories take place in rural Buckle Valley, but they are in no way limited by what the publishing industry likes to call regionalism. James Joyce has said, “In the particular is contained the universal.” By focusing on specific people in a specific place, whether  it’s a Chinese American woman trying to untangle the myth of her ancestry, or the ways “fate can turn mean” in the hands of a lying, conniving twelve-year-old girl, or the everyday oscillations of marriage, Chamberlain drills deep into our collective humanity.


In “Big Their Secret,” Crystal, a nurse’s aide, takes care of Fergus, a paralyzed man whose only physical capability is blinking his eye once for “yes,” twice for “no.” Fergus, with his thick brown curls, was once the “handsomest boy in all Buckle Valley.” “That kind of hair wasn’t supposed to be in nursing homes. ...The hair Fergus had should have been out walking about, getting tousled by the breeze and warmed by the sun, and the fingers of a woman should be combing it in the dark of night.” Crystal talks to him constantly, giving him time to blink out his yes and no answers. It’s quite a feat that, through these interactions, Chamberlain brings the silent man to life as a multi-dimensional character. The last line of this story is perfect.


In “Her Funny Valentine,” a lonely elderly man falls in love with an unconventional woman who is visiting the local artist’s refuge. He speaks a Montana truth when he says: “People from all over world came to have their art fed by the landscape that he’d never figured out how to eat and digest. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate its beauty; it’s just that he’d spent his whole life trying to balance living in Pocket against making a living in Pocket. ...The scale always tipped toward poverty.”


In one of my favorite stories, “Eva’s Task,” Eva moves to rural Idaho with her husband. As she stalks a mysterious cowboy, she falls in love with the land, hungry to learn everything about the wild rye, the sego lilies, the golden eagles diving for ground squirrels, and especially the swallows. “In her vast Idaho solitude, she admires the communities of mudjug houses they build in cliffs ... the creaking notes and guttural gratings of many conversations. ... Often she sits and studies them ... pleased at how much there is to learn about something so familiar.” She is transformed by the rural landscape, but when she witnesses the violent reality of her mysterious cowboy, her disillusionment is a catalyst for another type of change.


These stories show great versatility in style and structure. Some contain the wit, ingenuity and intellectual play of Nabokov, others include vivid descriptions of the western landscape that draw us into the beauty and power of place. The idea for this eclectic collection arose after Chamberlain attended an Ahn Trio concert. “That night, I decided I’d make the Ahn Trio into a quartet: I’d try to write stories that in mood corresponded to the cuts from their CD entitled Lullaby for My Favorite Insomniac.” Through this creative collaboration between the arts, Chamberlain has produced a highly entertaining and thought-provoking story collection.



FIFTY-SIX COUNTIES by Russell Rowland

Bangtail Press, 2016


In Fifty-Six Counties, Russell Rowland travels to Montana’s 56 counties and emerges with a complex and fascinating portrait of our vast and varied state. While no one book can hold all of Montana, this book packs an immense amount into its 416 pages. The strength of this travel memoir lies not only in Rowland’s curiosity and thoroughness, but also in his personal perspective on the current state of Montana.


The book mixes heavily researched history with subjective, experiential encounters with the people and places of contemporary Montana. As Rowland travels from the smallest county seat (Winnett in Petroleum County) to the largest Montana city (Billings in Yellowstone County), he explores how our state has changed over the years. “I had no idea what I was looking for on this journey, but the further I delved into the project, the more I realized ... I wanted ... to explore the connection between our past and our present.”


Rowland structures his book around the major forces that have shaped Montana, including the mining and timber industries, the railroads, farming and ranching, Native Americans, Montana politics, and the current Bakken oil boom. He isn’t afraid to shine a light on the darker sides of Montana: our state’s high rate of alcoholism and suicide, the atrocities of the Indian Wars and the Indian Removal Act, and the environmental devastations and economic despair of boom and bust economies, which left a legacy of Superfund Sites including the Berkeley Pit and the Libby asbestos contamination.


Rowland chronicles the changing face of our state as we move away from the old economies of resource extraction into new economies that rely on a clean and healthy environment, but these changes do not come easy. “In my travels, I observed ... a stubborn determination to hang on to old ideas, old ways of making a living. ... Often those areas ... most reluctant to change were suffering the most. ... The towns in Montana that seem to be doing the best are the ones that have embraced new possibilities.”


Rowland is buoyed by the hope and resilience he sees in the Montana people. He spotlights individuals who are making a difference in Montana today, including Sarah Calhoun who founded Red Ants Pants, a successful company that also sponsors an annual music festival and provides grants to rural women; and Adrian Jawort, a Northern Cheyenne writer and editor who publishes many young indigenous writers and who worked with Rowland to start the Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposium in Billings. “As long as one person in these small towns is figuring out a way to contribute and bring the community together, there is that chance of piling up those small increments of hope, brick by brick.”


While some might feel that Rowland has judged their towns too quickly after his brief visits, he joins a long line of travel writers who create impressionistic portraits of the places they visit. What Rowland offers us in Fifty-Six Counties is an ambitious personal journey into the complexities of Montana and an instinctual interpretation of place that is worth pondering. This book belongs on the shelves of any reader with a serious interest in Montana’s past and future.



THE NAMES OF THE STARS: A Life in the Wilds by Pete Fromm

Thomas Dunne Books, 2016


In the legendary wilderness memoir Indian Creek Chronicles, Pete Fromm wrote about his adventures as a clueless 20-year-old greenhorn heading out for a winter alone in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to babysit salmon eggs. Twenty-five years later, Fromm, no longer a footloose young man but now a middle-aged father of two, returns to the wild to tend grayling eggs in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.


The Names of the Stars recounts not only Fromm’s experience in the Bob Marshall, but, as the subtitle A Life in the Wilds implies, the book also chronicles a lifetime love affair with the wild. Fromm weaves seamlessly between his varied wilderness experiences, including his childhood camping trips and college backcountry treks, his Indian Creek escapade, his time as a river ranger in Grand Teton National Park, and most prominently his month of mud and bears in “The Bob.” His willingness to jump into new adventures is summed up in the statement: “I could, I figured, learn on the job.”


Every day in the Bob Marshall he hikes through grizzly country to two grayling incubator sites, climbing up the steep, sun-broiled “Hill of Doom” and down through the “Hansel and Gretel” stretch of dark woods with “long black claws and gleaming white teeth bristling behind every branch.” He shouts and sings to warn the bears of his approach, but the wind and rain and river drown him out. He comes upon battling grizzlies and a half-eaten elk calf carcass, and he stares down at grizzly tracks covering his own boot prints. “I start my descent, bellowing the national anthem. ... It’s not impossible to feel ridiculous.” At one point he recounts an earlier nighttime bear encounter that will leave even veteran wilderness adventurers shaking in their armchairs.


His intense fear of bears is matched only by his fierce longing for his boys, age 6 and 9, whom he unwillingly left at home. A single glance at the Batman pillow his son gave him leaves him “barely able to swallow, let alone breathe.” Fromm desperately wanted his boys to be there to experience the thrill of peering down badger holes and pulling cutthroats from the mother of all beaver ponds. He sees the wild magnified through the excitement and wonder of his little boys, something he wants to encourage wholeheartedly.


Fromm traces the roots of his passion for the wild to a moment when his usually rule-bound father set him loose to run wild and free through ponds and fields in pursuit of a rocket they set off. That exhilarating experience, like the first taste of heroin for an addict, led to a lifetime search for that sheer joy and exuberance. “Try not to howl, not to let loose the wildness you feel building inside you, a rush unknown, unsuspected, something you’ve yet to understand, at 12 years old, that you will crave for the rest of your days.”


Fromm is as much at home in the thickets of language as he is in the middle of the wilderness. His crystalline prose evokes that surge of delight we feel when we hear the mournful howl of a wolf or the “rifle-shot thwack” of a beaver tail. One night while Fromm floats the silvered Snake River under a full moon, he thinks, “What on earth did other people live for?” The Names of the Stars is a beautiful tribute to that urgent, visceral feeling that means we are still alive in this wild, wild world. This book will be savored by all those who cannot live without wild things.



DOG RUN MOON: Stories by Callan Wink

The Dial Press, 2016


Callan Wink’s long-awaited first book, Dog Run Moon, cements Wink’s growing reputation as a fresh and highly original voice in contemporary literature.


He published his first story in the New Yorker while he was still in college, and he has continued to publish in top-tier venues ever since. It’s not hard to understand why. Wink has a combination of raw talent, deft technical ability, and keen insight into human nature that is rare in a writer of his young age—or a writer of any age. I can say without reservation that he’s one of the best young writers coming out of the West.


Many of Wink’s stories explore the pressures on young men to conform to the impossible myth of masculinity revered in the West. These men flounder as they try to carve their own path in the world, unsure of what they want and how to get it. Through trial and error, they slowly grope their way toward adulthood.


In “Runoff,” a 25-year-old man living in his father’s basement overhears his father call him a beta dog who is willing to be led. He stumbles into love with a much older woman and finds himself playing alpha dog to her two young sons. In one hilarious scene, he teaches the boys how to be manly men by making strong coffee and then sitting around talking about the weather, something his own father does with his buddies down at Albertsons. When his girlfriend says that the coffee is horrible, her young sons reply, “It’s good...because we’re men.”


In “Breatharians,” a father gives his 12-year-old son the job of killing surplus barn cats using “whatever tool suits you...Small tails worth as much as large tails.” As the boy embraces this ghastly job, he witnesses his father having sex with his teenage girlfriend over a hay bale, her underwear’s “brilliant lacy pinkness...a glaring insult to the honest, flyspecked, manure brown of the barn.” The next morning when the girlfriend asks him if he wants his coffee black, like his dad’s, the boy says, “Sure,” and he tries not to grimace as he sips the strong brew. Then he grabs his wrench and heads to the barn, trying to find his place within the adult world of work and sex.


In the title story, “Dog Run Moon,” a young man runs barefoot through the desert at night with a stolen dog while two angry men chase him on an ATV. This story primes us for a violent climax, but the subtext of longing and pain is more complex and interior than that.


Just when we think we have this author comfortably pigeonholed as a writer writing about disaffected young men, Wink blows those expectations to smithereens with “In Hindsight,” a long and intricately woven story about a working-class bisexual woman. We follow the woman through half a century as she cobbles a makeshift family out of her ruined relationships and squeezes life out of her disappointments.


Wink’s beautifully strange stories are bewitching. They have a fiery passion and authenticity that make them infinitely pleasurable to read. If you haven’t read Callan Wink yet, it’s time to take the plunge. He’s the real deal.



FOR A LITTLE WHILE: New and Selected Stories by Rick Bass

Little, Brown, 2016


For a Little While by Rick Bass collects the best of almost 30 years’ worth of Bass’s short stories, a delectable mix that includes old favorites as well as many new gems.


Bass, whose stories have appeared in nearly every major short story venue and have won numerous prizes, is a storyteller extraordinaire. His tightly woven tales seem to grow organically from sentence to sentence, like leaves unfurling in the sun. These stories are deeply rooted in place, revealing a strange and beguiling beauty among the gas flares of Texas, the alligator-infested swamps of the southern bayou, and the isolated cabins and snowclad forests of Montana.


Bass immerses us in the sometimes odd but always fascinating lives of his characters: cyclists and runners, loggers and hunters, adolescents on the verge sexual awakening and adults wading into the quagmire of dementia. One thing these characters have in common is that they are all searching for something solid to hang onto in a fluid and ever-changing world. Sometimes they find this elusive stability “for a little while” in love and family, in work and place, in the mad obsessions that drive them onward through the confusion and chaos of life.


In “Coach,” a man’s “incandescent fury” for girls’ basketball, with its mix of “high passion and deep irrelevance,” is a form of therapy he uses “to heal from a lifetime of setbacks and pain.” In “The Legend of Pig-Eye,” a young fighter tries to gain acceptance from his sadistic trainer. “I did not know what my parents wanted from me, but I did know what Don wanted. ...I wondered if I fought so wildly and viciously...to keep things from changing.”


In these stories, love is the strongest bulwark against the impermanence of life. In “How She Remembers It,” a young girl traveling with her father glimpses the thin line between her privileged life and the hopelessness and despair of a woman with brittle orange hair sitting beside her broken down Cadillac with a half empty bottle of vodka. “She seemed resigned, so accustomed to this type of situation...as she confirmed once again that she understood how world was...no mercy in it for her.” The girl imagines herself in such a predicament and realizes: “Only her own victory of being loved deeply allowed her the luxury of such indulgent imaginings.”


In Bass’s stories, spouses and children leave, mountain lions threaten to rip apart a man’s happiness, and rivers change direction, taking entire towns with them. “It can go just like that,” one character says, snapping her fingers. “It can go that fast.” Yet in the midst of such uncertainty, Bass has an uncanny ability to find beauty and passion. In an unstable world, this collection gives us something solid to hold onto “for a little while.”



SWIFT DAM by Sid Gustafson

Open Books, 2016


Swift Dam by Sid Gustafson tells the tale of two men, the aging veterinarian Dr. Fingers Vallerone and the young Blackfeet sheriff Bird Oberly, who live in the small agricultural community of Conrad, Montana, near the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation. The story weaves back and forth through time, telling Vallerone’s life story from the Swift Dam failure in 1964 to half a century later when he returns to the dam to come to terms with his life.


On the first page of the book, Sheriff Oberly receives a phone call from Vallerone’s son reporting that his elderly father is missing. Oberly knows that his friend has a tendency to disappear into the wide open, sometimes for practical reasons such as birthing a calf, and other times for more nebulous and existential reasons such as wandering the labyrinth of his memory. Oberly also knows that Vallerone’s son is more worried about the mysterious black bag Vallerone carries than he is about his father’s whereabouts.


Both Oberly and Vallerone are nighthawks and moondrivers by profession, traveling the backcountry roads and sharing “watch over Pondera County darkness.” Dr. Vallerone has spent his life freewheeling “his laden rig over the countryside from horse to cow, all those foothill ridges and prairies, all those snowy roads. His mission: bringing life into the world.” Vallerone, who is both an author and a naturopathic veterinarian like Gustafson, eschews drugs and vaccines, instead relying on nutrition and exercise and the power of intuition to treat his animal patients. He has “learned to think like a horse and cow,” and he communicates with animals in their language, a body language “where the slightest gesture tells the biggest truth.” “Fingers mended and nourished animals up and down the Rocky Mountain Front. ... As he healed, he taught the animal keepers to see the world from their animals’ viewpoint, both the domestic and the wild perspective ... a medicine man of the oldest order, an intuitive physician.”


A potent nostalgia permeates this book, reminiscent of A.B. Guthrie’s novels, a wistful longing for halcyon days when the buffalo roamed the plains instead of cattle and when the “nature-savvy Indians” lived in harmony with the land. The book embraces Native American spirituality and lore, as told through Vallerone’s perspective, a white man who admires Indian mysticism and incorporates it into his naturopathic veterinary philosophy and his relationship with animals. The 1964 Swift Dam failure, which killed many Native Americans who lived in the drainage below, is a symbol of the tragic effects of Manifest Destiny. “In 1914, Swift Dam went up ... altering the Birch Creek tide of life. ... Water tripled and quadrupled the bounty extracted from a piece of land. Not without a price. ... The Earth and Indians pay the price.”


By the end of this meditative, smoothly written book, the mystery of Vallerone’s disappearances and the enigma of the black bag are resolved and we understand how the Flood of ’64 reverberates through the lives of the characters. This book is a testimony to the dangerous hubris of man, a witness to what is passing away, and a celebration of the wild power of nature.



THE ACTOR by Beth Hunter McHugh

Riverbend Publishing, 2015


It’s easy to see why The Actor by Beth Hunter McHugh won Riverbend Publishing’s 2015 Meadowlark Award. McHugh has written a quiet, powerful coming-of-age novel about growing up in a “very nice house” built on a foundation of secrets and lies. The book explores the fragile and fluid sanctity of home, the damaging pressures to conform to society’s norms, and the difficulties of navigating the minefields of adolescence among the prying eyes and perpetual gossip of small town Montana in the 1960s.


The family secret is revealed early in the book. Gracie and her younger sister Franny live with their mother Nora, a poet and law professor, and their father David, an actor and drama teacher. On the surface their lives are perfect: loving and artistic parents, bohemian cocktail parties, and the innocent faith that things will always stay the same. But everything changes when a young acting student named Ivan comes to live with them. It soon becomes apparent that Ivan and David are in love, and they move to New York, shattering the family’s stability. The remainder of the book fleshes out that inevitable act’s fallout on Gracie, Franny and their mother.


McHugh tells this story of one family going through cataclysmic changes with great subtlety and precision. When Gracie witnesses a fight between her mother and father over Ivan, she sees her normally composed mother throw a dish across the room. Gracie goes to sleep that night thinking “about my mother’s smashed gravy boat, the dust from the wreckage still stuck in crevices on the kitchen floor where cleaning could not reach. The china dust would remain there forever; it would get caught on the soles of our feet and would be carried with us all, wherever we walked in the world.”


Gracie’s younger sister Franny is one of the most engaging characters in the book. She has a childish sophistication reminiscent of Carson McCullers’s young female protagonists. Franny is an insomniac who wanders the streets of their neighborhood at night in her nightgown and plastic curlers, returning with gossip about the neighbors. “I feared what Franny could so easily discern; it seemed that the neighborhood could hold nothing secret for long. If Franny could take a simple stroll and learn about affairs and strange visitors and sex in dark cars, how evident were our own secrets?”


 McHugh has sculpted a wise and moving debut novel about the journey from youthful innocence and the comforting illusion of permanence to the acceptance of change and the expanding horizons of young adulthood. “We walked and the sun of that country spread reams of light in every direction; we walked feeling blessed simply for knowing a wider space than any we had known before.” This is a big-hearted story about love and loss and resilience—the small exploding moments that tear down and build up our hearts every day—the stuff that life is made of. “Who were we to assume we were the only ones who had ever known sadness,” Gracie says. “Everyone else is moving on. So must we.”



SURVIVORS SAID: Stories by Matt Pavelich

Drumlummon Institute, 2015


Matt Pavelich is a very effective liar. Survivors Said collects four decades worth of his highly imaginative, incredibly inventive stories, an eclectic mix that pulls the reader in and holds us from the first line to the last.


The scope of this collection is sweeping. Pavelich takes us into the worlds of a now-extinct Ice Age hominid and a suicidal mental patient, a bored bank robber and a flippant teenage violin player, an AWOL governor in the Montana Territory and a group of Blackfeet “slow elk” hunters, a lonely enlisted man visiting a brothel and an aging, once-famous musician whose life is hijacked by an increasingly demonic gray kitten. These characters—young and old, male and female, contemporary and historical—are all survivors. As one character says, “One survives and survives, and every survival exacts its price. My God, I am hard to extinguish.”


Pavelich is a master at conjuring a powerful and compelling narrator’s voice. These are characters with attitude, characters that keep us enthralled through their sheer hubris and swagger.


In “My Distant Youth,” the protagonist is a four-thumbed Pleistocene hominid (“Homo somethingelsus”) living right at the moment when the Lake Missoula ice dam broke, sending a catastrophic rush of water to the Pacific Ocean. It is the narrative force of this odd character and the imaginative details of this fictional dream world that capture our attention. “I was a fine specimen of a promising race that should have done very well on this planet,” says our none-too-humble hominid. “Our names and all our words were as bird song, fruity bursts of melody, of pure emotion. ...With a language incapable of capturing the past or painting a future we lived in a succession of perfectly ripe moments. ...We sang under the hides throughout most of each endless winter, sustaining harmonies like the northern lights.”


In one of my favorite stories, “Empty Lot,” an overconfident young boy lives his life with very little fear and a whole lot of chutzpah. The boy befriends a fearful, unpopular kid named Randy Creamer, and he decides to teach Randy about the ways of the world—starting with how to hop a train. When Randy whines that he’s worried about getting his leg cut off, the narrator says, “It was as if this kid had never seen a decent western. If you fall, you roll between the wheels. You lay flat on the tracks and the train goes over you. ...The situation wants no further study. You jump.” This dangerously overconfident young boy is every parent’s nightmare, but every reader’s delight.


In “Punta Coyote,” a Nebraska woman drags her unadventurous husband to the backroads of Mexico looking for excitement, but she finds more than she bargained for. The beauty of the Baja peninsula takes on an ominous tone when they find themselves staying in an old prison compound owned by the violent and mysterious Senor Maldonado. “Won’t this be a story, though?” her husband says. “Kind of colorful.”


Survivors Said is a wild carnival ride well worth the price of admission. These engaging stories are full of humor and pathos: we laugh at the characters’ follies; we fear for them; we cheer them on. All stories should be this entertaining.



CROW FAIR: Stories by Thomas McGuane

Knopf, 2015


In Crow Fair, Thomas McGuane offers seventeen pithy, emotionally-wrenching stories set in contemporary Montana. These stories take place in the small towns and remote homes of the rural West, places where everyone “had the same commute down the long dirt road to the interstate and thence to town and jobs,” places where the emotional distances between people are matched by the vast expanses of the Montana landscape.


McGuane creates complex, deeply troubled characters who are struggling to survive in a chaotic and indifferent world. They have little control over themselves or the world around them. Their relationships are difficult and damaging, and they are often more attached to alcohol or tractors or turtles or the stars than they are to other people. As the narrator says of the astronomer in ”Stars,” “her disappointment seemed to be rooted in humanity in general.”


The land carries history in these stories, whether it’s in the “old tepee rings from when the land had been Indian country” or in the pasture where the longhorns rested after their long journey from Texas. The elderly also carry history, as McGuane keenly evokes in “A Long View to the West.” When Clay, a used car salesman, visits his dying father in the hospital, he says, “About all anyone could do was listen to his stories. ...What good had it been, the old man herding thousands of cattle over all those years only to wind up with arms like Popsicle sticks and pissing through a tube. Nothing to show for his trouble but stories.”  But the richness of his father’s stories about ranching life causes Clay to question the emptiness of his own existence.


In “The Good Samaritan,” a man works his land to produce racehorse-quality alfalfa hay. He is smitten with his John Deere tractor and the way the “unblemished hills of his property looked better through its windshield.” But the reality is that his property doesn’t produce enough hay to pay for fuel for his beloved tractor. “All the way down through this minor economic chain, people lost money, their marvelous dreams disconnected from hopes of success.”


Perhaps the most devastating moment in this story collection is when a young boy’s pet turtles are killed in “Hubcaps.” At that moment the boy learns that anything he loves he will lose, whether it’s his disintegrating family or the “tiny perfection” of his beloved turtles. He deals with the chaos and cruelty in his young life by stealing hubcaps, an obsession that gives him some control over his life but is likely to lead to even more trouble in the future.


McGuane’s writing may have become quieter over the years, but it is as powerful as ever.  He has mastered the art of leading us to the moment that cracks open the lives of his characters, the moment when everything changes. As McGuane sends his hapless characters stumbling almost blindly through their unlucky lives, we are captivated by the everyday tragedies that follow. That artful rendering of humanity is all we can ask for in a good story, and McGuane delivers.




Unbridled Books, 2015


American Copper by Shann Ray is a sprawling Montana saga set in the first half of the 20th century. The novel encompasses the greed and ruthlessness of the copper kings, the horrors of Native American genocide, the personal tragedies of alcoholism and violence, and the possibilities of redemption.


The story focuses on a handful of richly developed characters whose lives eventually intersect. Josef “the Baron” Lowry is a wealthy and powerful copper king and a violent alcoholic who tries to force his will on the land and the people around him. The Baron’s daughter, Evelynne, is a poet who “was more naturally drawn away from the industry of the city to the wilderness where she could be alone in great tracks of land, inviolable and fierce of their own accord.” She longs to break free from her father’s tyranny, but she is confined by his iron hand and by her own dutiful nature. William Black Kettle is the great-great grandson of a Cheyenne leader who survived the Sand Creek Massacre. William straddles both the white and Indian world, making his living traveling the rodeo circuit and team roping with his best friend Raymond Killsnight. At the rodeo they meet Zion, “a white man who spoke easily with Indians,” but Zion’s circumstances leave him drifting around Montana, camping out like a vagabond, “the sound of gravel beneath his boots...leading nowhere.”


Through the rodeo, William, Raymond and Zion eventually come into contact with the Baron and Evelynne. The rodeo is a place where whites and Indians work side by side, but it is also a place where prejudice is as palpable and deadly as the sharp horns of a bull. William and Raymond are cheated out of their wages, face “blows of boot and fist,” and live with the constant threat of mob violence.


American Copper has been aptly compared to Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall. Both are set in Montana in the early 20th C. Both are tragic family sagas. Both also have a powerful emotional intensity that is essential in any good story. Jim Harrison has said, “I like grit, I like love and death. ... The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. ... I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass.” American Copper is neither corny nor overly-sentimental—it is a deeply moving first novel that plumbs the depths of the human heart and adds texture and grace to the “unutterable shades and lights of creation.” Although this book bears witness to the atrocities we are capable of committing against each other, it is ultimately a story about the choices we make either to close ourselves off from the world and wallow in our bitterness and rage or to move on and open our hearts to the beauty and love that sparkles among the wreckage. Like Legends, this epic Montana story would make a fine movie.



VAGABOND SONG by Marc Beaudin

Elk River Books, 2015


Vagabond Song by Marc Beaudin is a love song to the open road, a jazzy, freewheeling hitchhiking memoir that chronicles fifteen years of footloose travel through the U.S., Mexico, and beyond.


Beaudin, an itinerant poet like the 17th Century haiku master Bashō, models his memoir in the haibun style of Bashō’s travelogues, mixing verse and prose to tell the stories behind his road poems. Beaudin bounces from hostels to campsites to Hare Krishna temples, all the while searching for some mythical authentic experience. “Being on the road is perhaps the best practice for living in the Eternal Now. Every moment is new, ephemeral and eternal simultaneously, and nothing is taken for granted.” Along the way he meets up with a series of “Vagabond Angels,” brief encounters with strangers that change the trajectory of his life. “Who knows what or who will get me to the next place. What seems to matter is to keep moving.”


Even before we open this book, we are immersed in the spirit of wanderlust. The cover painting by Edd Enders perfectly captures the lure of the backroads: a blue rural road dipping and rolling into the distance, surrounded by golden hills and topped by a multi-colored sky where black crows tumble and play in their own insouciant dance.


Driven by the beautiful bravado and passion of youth, Beaudin dives headfirst into the dangers and glories of life on the road. He writes about his first view of the ocean, his first real Guinness in Ireland, his first experience of Miles Davis’s iconic Bitches Brew. By chance he ends up at a Rainbow Gathering where “Everything’s free! Everyone’s free!” but the peace and love are nearly shattered by an act of violence. On the advice of Clyde the farmer/truck driver, Beaudin heads to Mexico and Central America where his authentic experiences explode with the gunfire of rebels and soldiers: “My focus instantly narrows to the size of rifle barrel.” These experiences feed his growing awareness of the social and environmental injustices of the world. “On the lake, fisherman in hand-hewn canoes. ... In the hills...rebellion. On the horizon, a ring of volcanoes saying, ‘Live this moment fully, wildly, joyously, for tomorrow...could be your last.’”


Beaudin’s journeys into “casual madness” change him, making him feel more alive. “Something wild stares back at me from the mirror. Something unfamiliar and unknown. Feral. It’s not just the beard—the eyes contain a fire I haven’t seen before. ...I nearly howl.”


“Road is a verb,” Beaudin says. This book is also a verb, a rollicking road trip into the hot beating heart of the Eternal Now. Hop in and enjoy the ride.




Trinity Univ. Press, 2015


Annick Smith’s Crossing the Plains with Bruno is a rich exploration of place that digs deep into the bedrock of personal and collective memory. The memoir revolves around a two-week road trip Smith took in 2003, leaving her homestead in the mountains of Montana and traveling to Chicago to visit her 97-year-old mother. Her companion is a chocolate lab named Bruno, an unruly sidekick who rides shotgun “like Sancho Panza to Don Quixote, a reminder of the physical realities outside our imaginations.” As Smith travels across the plains, she weaves her memories and experience into a vivid portrait of an artist’s life as well as a fascinating contemplation of the history and meaning of place and the challenges of aging and death.


For anyone who is not familiar with Smith’s long resume as a writer and filmmaker, here’s a taste: author of Homestead and In This We Are Native, co-editor of The Last Best Place, producer of Heartland, and co-producer of A River Runs through It and films about Richard Hugo. She is the daughter of Hungarian Jewish immigrants and the longtime companion of William Kittredge, her “cowboy Dylan Thomas.” Smith grew up in a home full of “renegade artists and writers,” including Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, and Duke Ellington.


As Smith drives eastward, she passes from the shortgrass prairie where: “The sky is dominant. ... Weather arrives windborne from the horizon some fifty miles distant. ... Only the wind is constant,” and she enters the tallgrass prairie of the Midwest, where the human landscape changes from ranches to farms, cattle to corn. “Once, big bluestem and Indian grasses rose ten feet tall on these prairies. ...A man on horseback had to stand up in his stirrups to see where he was going. Now the tall grasses have been tamed to corn and wheat, and what wildness remains may be found in tornados, blizzards, bars, meth labs.” Along the way she braids in stories of writers and artists tied to the land, including A.B. Guthrie Jr., Charlie Russell, and Mari Sandoz, a writer whose father slapped her and locked her in the cellar, saying, “Fiction is only fit for hired girls...artists and writers are the maggots of society.” 


The land Smith travels through is full of ghosts, calling up memories of her late husband Dave Smith and her friends Richard Hugo, James Welch, and Jim Crumley—all people who died too young. At the family lake cottage, she senses her father’s “gaunt, Brillo-haired ghost. It sits on the chairs he sat on, prowls the screened porch. The very air rising from the lake seems to carry a wisp of his tobacco breath.” At night she watches her mother remove her hearing aids, brush her false teeth, and stand “naked by the bathroom sink—a gnomish, hunched, and breastless crone.” The second worst thing about growing old, Smith says, is seeing friends disappear. “The first worst is your own disintegration.”


Death may be lounging in the back seat on this journey, but this book is ultimately a celebration of life—both in the form of Bruno’s joyous “brown-dog dance” and Smith’s own free spirit. “What I love is to head down the road into new territory and discover whatever comes to me. ...I am a nomad at heart. The road calls. ...Goodbye, life-as-usual, I’m truckin’!” It’s a pleasure to be truckin’ along with her.



FAR ENOUGH: A Western in Fragments by Joe Wilkins

Black Lawrence Press, 2015


Far Enough by Joe Wilkins is a spare, beautifully written book that encapsulates the hardships and occasional joys of ranching life on the Musselshell River in central Montana.


Wilkins knows the territory. He grew up in the “Big Dry,” and he knows what it means to try to make a living off this harsh, windy, often rainless land.  As the subtitle “A Western in Fragments” suggests, this is a story told in short, mostly one-page sections, brief snapshots of the heartbreak and beauty of life on the unforgiving Montana prairie. The characters and story Wilkins brings to life are complex and richly-developed, and we come to know an entire way of life in this slender novella.


This is the story of blood and bone, of dust and wind, but mostly this is the story of the absence of rain and the unraveling of lives during a ten-year drought that has gripped the Musselshell Valley. On the first page a young cowboy named Willie Benson loses his thumb in a roping accident, an injury that changes the trajectory of his life. His boss, Wade Newman, is the owner of the “RL Ranch, the biggest spread of private land all down the river.” Wade is a kind man, but he is also a driven and sometimes desperate man, bent on keeping his ranch afloat whatever the cost to the people around him. Wade’s teenage daughter Jackie is seduced by the idea of leaving this difficult life behind.


The long drought takes a heavy toll on the land and everyone on it. It’s fitting that the Ryegate Bar appears on almost every page of this book because a mix of alcohol and stoicism keeps these ranchers and cowboys going from day to day. The bar is a refuge, alcohol a salve that provides temporary relief from the hard reality of their lives. “Willie Benson watched the Musselshell River slow to a trickle that summer, the carp and bullhead twisting in the mud, the cattle tromping down to suck hot, stagnant water. Then, in August, there was no water.” Willie would “talk to the cattle. He’d tell them that it had all gone dry...and there wasn’t a thing to do about it—I’d get on out if I were you, just walk right out of this valley.”


The title Far Enough comes in halfway through the book when Willie journeys into the mountains looking for stray cattle on a cold winter day. “He knew he’d come a long ways, but he didn’t know how far was far enough.” But “far enough” takes on multiple meanings in this book, including Wade Newsome’s stubborn pursuit of ranching in the face of falling cattle prices, no rain, and the threat of foreclosure. How far is far enough when lives are ruined, families are broken, alcoholism is raging, cattle are starving? There is hope in the kindness sprinkled throughout this book; there is hope in the possibility of breaking away and leaving this luckless land behind; and for the rancher looking skyward, there is always the eternal hope for rain. 


Wilkins writes about rural Montana with the same brilliance and precision as Ivan Doig or Wallace Stegner. His lyrical descriptions and evocative imagery make for a jaw-droppingly beautiful book. There is a mysterious alchemy that takes place when beautiful language is mixed with the dust and blood of hardscrabble lives. In Far Enough we are left with pure gold.




Barking Rain Press, 2015


Winner Take None by Greg Comer is a hilarious and sometimes violent retelling of the settlement of the West. The novel is set in the Montana Territory in 1879, a time when the railroad was moving westward across Montana, bringing its own ruthless brand of commerce and civilization to the Wild West.


Like Huck Finn lighting out for the Territory, 14-year-old Deuter Seebea heads west with his friend Tom, an ornery cat, and dreams of becoming a logger in Oregon. The two end up in Railstop, a makeshift frontier town hastily erected in the railroad right-of-way in order to extort money from the railroad company. The town consists of the Glory Hole bar and brothel on one side of the street, run by the absinthe-drinking madame Angelique and the aging gunfighter Doc Waller, and the café and general store on the other side of the street, run by the God-fearing and profit-driven O’Doody sisters and the shrewd business woman Althea Wright. Young Deuter, Tom, and two indigent men (the Shakespeare-quoting Carmichael and his longtime companion KT) are stuck in the middle, working for both sides.


Everyone in Railstop is scheming to get their hands on the jackpot cash settlement from the railroad. Deuter seems to be the only one who is willing to work for an honest buck. Like Tom Sawyer’s fence painting ruse, Tom convinces Deuter to do all the labor in building the town’s flimsy shacks. “Tom said with just three men working while he supervised, we would make more money over the long haul. Carmichael said with only two of us working, we’d make even more, so we let Tom be the Souper and Carmichael the Foreman.” “I cursed the both of them for stupidity, but then, who sat lolly gagging in the shade while the smart one of the bunch staggered...with a heavy board.”


Winner Take None is both a light-hearted adventure novel and a treatise on the ugly roots of American capitalism. It joins a long tradition of revisionist historical fiction. Instead of glorifying the settlement of the West and “Man’s Infest Destiny,” this novel is full of greed and violence. Racism, sexism and classism run rampant across this wild frontier. Tom has to hide his braids under a handkerchief to avoid being mistreated or murdered for being Indian. Women can’t legally own property or vote, and the poor can be abused or killed with little consequence. And, as Deuter learns, “A kid did not have any more rights than a woman in the Montana Territory.”


Comer tells this story with the humorous style and cutting social commentary of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, along with the occasional absurdity of Monty Python. Comer’s American frontier can be summed up in Tom’s parting words, “Sorry Deuter, but it’s every man for hisself nowadays!” but also in Deuter’s ever-hopeful thoughts, “I was riding into new territory, the world out there ahead of me.” Happy trails, Deuter. We wish you well.



THE BIG SEVEN: A Faux Mystery by Jim Harrison

Grove Press, 2015


Jim Harrison is at the height of his literary powers in The Big Seven, a sequel to the best-selling novel The Great Leader.


Simon Sunderson returns as an ex-gumshoe who retreats to a fishing cabin in the Upper Peninsula to ponder the nature of good and evil. He was deeply affected by a fire and brimstone sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins that he heard as a child, and he decides to write an essay about what he believes should be the eighth deadly sin—violence.


His new neighbors, the sprawling Ames family, give him plenty of sinful behavior to brood over. They are a violent and lawless family who guzzle vodka by the gallon, beat their wives and children, rape their young, and communicate with bullets and fists rather than words. They live in ramshackle houses, their weedy yards filled with junk and their homes “suppurating with mayhem.”


The Ameses could easily be seen as stereotypes of incestuous, shotgun-toting white trash, but Sunderson’s earnest attempts to understand the nature of their depraved behavior adds a multilayered approach to the doomed family. “He imagined growing up in that rabbit warren of fear and horror. ...What did that do to the mind of a child?”


Someone is murdering the Ames family one by one, and Sunderson finds himself caught in the middle of the killing spree. He views the violence around him within the context of “the history of violence, which was the history of man”: the Crusades, Indian massacres, Hiroshima, Warsaw Ghetto, all the way back to Cain and Abel. As Sunderson reflects “on the horrors we commit against each other,” he thinks, “More than anything as a detective I learned that human behavior was an endless puzzle, especially bad behavior. Good behavior is obvious.”


Perfect characters, just like perfect people, are terribly boring. It’s the flaws and scars we collect through living that give texture to our lives. And Sunderson is one big sloppy mess of a flawed character. The real mystery he’s trying to solve is the mystery of himself. Was he fascinated with the Ameses because “their disarray was reflected in his own?”


He’s a 66-year-old retired detective, divorced from the woman he loves, leading a messy life tinged with regret. Like many of Harrison’s protagonists, Sunderson is a man of large appetites and large thoughts, both carnal and cerebral, a thinking man’s working man who reads Nabokov and Djuna Barnes and who finds solace in fishing and the natural world.


At one point or another he engages in all seven deadly sins, but he has a particular weakness for lechery and gluttony. He eats himself silly on pork rinds and chicken pot pies, and his sexual impulses turn him into a “mere animal” stupid with lust. He does things that will make the reader uncomfortable, but we keep reading because he’s a fascinating and ultimately likable character, and perhaps because we recognize our own imperfections within his muddled life.


The Big Seven is a rich exploration of the human condition, and reading Jim Harrison’s prose is like listening to a virtuoso jazz musician spinning his improvisational magic. The pleasure of immersing ourselves in this book may be similar to the pleasures of indulging in lust and gluttony, but if this is sinful then we should all aspire to be sinners.



MAÑANA by William Hjortsberg

Open Road Media, 2015


Mañana, William Hjortsberg’s first novel since Nevermore, is a stylish, hippie-noir tale filled with drugs and sex and sawed-off shotguns, a 100 mph road trip into the darkest alleys of the human soul.


Tod and his wife Linda are wandering hippies who flee to a small town in Mexico to escape the societal decay closing in around them in San Francisco after the Summer of Love has ended. They befriend their new neighbors, a motley mix of “secondhand gangsters” including Nick, a junky, Frankie, a prostitute, Shank, a killer who is “wild-eyed and grinning like a label on a poison bottle,” and Doc, a pudgy thief in his fifties who quotes from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.


Tod has always been intrigued by the shadowy underbelly of society. “I’d searched for the heart and soul of midnight all my life,” he says. “I was...always the outsider, yearning to be hip.” He finds what he was looking for in the gang next door. “Linda and I were the squares made hip to the ways of the underworld by our criminal neighbors.”


After a particularly wild party with his new friends, Tod wakes up next to their friendly neighborhood prostitute, Frankie, with her throat cut from ear to ear and his bloody hunting knife nearby. He has no memory of what happened after his first taste of heroin the night before.


Tod’s lowlife neighbors are gone and his wife is missing. He sets off on a mad dash through Mexico in search of his beloved wife, his lawless neighbors, and answers to the gaping hole in his memory. Did he kill Frankie, or was he left behind as the fall guy? Has his wife been kidnapped, or did she leave willingly? His search for answers sends him on a wild downhill slide into the darker side of humanity, a journey that mirrors the decline of late-sixties society, as peace and love gave way to speed freaks and assassinations, as the “beautiful nonviolent dream ignited into incendiary nightmare.”


Hjortsberg’s antihero Tod is a hardboiled hippie in a Hawaiian shirt who cruises down the highways and back roads of Mexico sipping Pacificos and smoking “dorfs” (pot) until the “day’s horrors floated away on a cloud of intoxication.” He taunts big time mobsters, engages in a knife fight with teenage banditos, and exchanges gunfire with a vicious killer, all with a foolish bravado and a growing sense of doom.


Mañana is dripping with a cool cynicism that matches Céline or Paul Bowles tempered with the offbeat humor of Tom Robbins and Carl Hiaasen. It’s a wicked black comedy about a happy hippie’s whirlwind descent into disillusionment. The theme is ‘trust no one,’ and Hjortsberg creates a world in which there is a thin line between jaded hippies with flowers in their hair and hardened criminals with bloody knives in their hands. “I understood for the first time that almost anyone, any stranger in the crowd, might be a killer,” Tod says. In this highly entertaining book, cynicism is a dish best served bloody.



BITTER CREEK by Peter Bowen

Open Road Media, 2015


After a nine year hiatus, Du Pré is back in Bitter Creek, the 14th Gabriel Du Pré novel by Peter Bowen.


Du Pré, a Métis Indian of mixed Cree and French blood, is a brand inspector, master fiddler, and sometimes deputy. When he finds himself drawn into New West controversies bloodied with Old West violence, he rolls a smoke, takes a sip of whiskey from his flask, and follows the mounting clues. “People die, I want to know why,” he says. “I want to know what happened.”


The mystery begins when Du Pré and two injured Iraqi war vets, Chappie and Patchen, go to medicine man Benetsee’s sweat lodge to heal from the physical and emotional scars of war. In that mystical place, with water hissing on hot stones, they hear voices that they realize are a band of long dead Métis crying out for justice.


They know that a massacre has taken place, but they don’t know who killed the Métis, why they were killed, or where the bodies are hidden. These questions must be answered so the dead can finally rest. But the roadblocks are many, including false identities, more murders, and the people of Pardoe who will go to great lengths to keep their town’s history buried. “Lots of secrets...lots of blood...land full of it,” Du Pré says.


The pleasure of this book lies in the rural Montana flavor that Bowen creates in the fictional town of Toussaint in northeastern Montana. Toussaint is the Mayberry of the Métis, a friendly community where everybody sticks together and the saloon is the social hub of the town. It’s a place where the old ways are valued and where injustice is not tolerated. Bowen brings the Métis culture alive in the distinctive dialect, droll humor, and rugged endurance of a landless people who were considered “undesirable noncitizens” when the massacre took place in 1910.


The humor in Bitter Creek softens the horror. In a land where a hayhook could just as easily be used to drag a body as a hay bale, it helps to have the comic relief of Du Pré’s precocious grandchildren and of Eustace the water buffalo, a ½ ton house pet who opens gates, sleeps in the flower beds, and sticks her head in the grumbling cowboy Booger Tom’s window to eat from his table.


When four beefy men from Homeland Security come knocking, Du Pré’s young grandchildren stand their ground with red kerchiefs tied around their heads and guns in their small hands. As this miniature militia gives the feds the finger, we can’t help cheering them on.


Du Pré is a man who would prefer to stay home with his family and friends, but he can’t ignore the grave injustices going on around him. With so much injustice in the world, we can hope for many more Du Pré stories to come.



DIRT WORK: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl

Beacon Press, 2013


Anyone who has spent much time bushwhacking through a forest littered with deadfall or a high mountain pass strewn with talus and boulder fields knows the relief of stepping back onto a maintained trail. But most of us haven’t thought much about how those trails came about in the first place. In Dirt Work, Christine Byl gives us a rollicking, gritty, sometimes philosophical, sometimes bawdy account of the unsung workers who build and maintain those winding trails.


Dirt Work is a coming of age story, a wild Bildungsroman set in the national parks and forests of Montana and Alaska. One summer before grad school Byl takes a job as a “traildog,” a seasonal trail worker in Glacier National Park, and by the end of the season she has found her calling in the physical challenge, camaraderie and wild surroundings of trails work.


Byl arrives “green as spring,” the “skinniest, least-muscled of the bunch.” She doesn’t know how to swing an axe or start a chainsaw, but she watches and listens and learns. After several seasons she moves from rookie to master, her knowledge growing and her body strengthening. Along with the physical changes came a mental change: “What I imagined I was capable of changed. I relished the bravado of muscle, the swagger of look what I can do.”


In telling this story, Byl reveals the secret life of traildogs—the backbreaking work and colorful crew mates, the team spirit and sense of pride. “I want to honor this world, show you its value. The mule packers coiling ropes in the barn, the shop mechanic, lip thick with chew.” She moves from outsider to insider by working hard, learning the lingo, and embracing the traildog ethos: “Don’t quit, complain, lag, or brag. Pretend nothing hurts.” Byl doesn’t romanticize manual labor. She has suffered broken fingers and hernia surgeries. But trail work gave her confidence and a sense of belonging she treasured.


Before being swept into the life of a traildog, Byl earned a degree in philosophy. Along with the “chainsaw mix and spruce pitch, diesel fumes and sweat,” she includes quotes by Edward Abbey and Socrates, Annie Dillard and the Tao Te Ching. Byl plunges into the “false dichotomies” of mind and body, women and men, wild and human. In the face of the 9/11 tragedy, she evokes the power of wilderness, “not to escape the reality of violence, but to counter it, to temper hopelessness and despair with wind, water, light.”


Byl loves her life in the woods. After a showerless 10-day hitch in the backcountry, she gets a kick out of going into a bar full of squeaky-clean tourists. “I trust dirty fingernails,” she says. “Dirt is a secret code, dusty knuckles the special knock of a fraternal order. I trust this small sign because it implies a tangible relationship. To get dirt under your fingernails, you have to touch the world.” I raise my glass to this traildog tour-de-force, dirty fingernails and all.



THE CARRY HOME: Lessons from the American Wilderness by Gary Ferguson

Counterpoint, 2014


In The Carry Home, Gary Ferguson writes about how we might face the darkest moments in our lives and how we might find our way back to the light again. The book moves between the harrowing day when his wife, Jane, drowned on the Kopka River in Canada, the nature-filled years they shared before that tragic day, and Ferguson’s long journey through the deadening center of grief and back to a joyful life again.


Ferguson and his wife fell in love while floating rivers and hiking mountains. “We came to know each other at three miles an hour...and at every turn, we confessed a need to forge a life that would keep wild ground always underfoot.” Jane comes alive on the page: her love of wild places, her enthusiasm in sharing that love with the young adults she teaches, and her “giddy, slightly silly look...as if putting on the look of happy took her halfway to being there.”


After Jane’s death, Ferguson is numb to the beauty and mystery of the natural world that had always sustained him. His wonder of nature goes dormant “like a great creature gone extinct. ...And I doubted the world could spin out something so compelling ever again.”


His redemption comes in the form of Jane’s request that he scatter her ashes in five wild places she loved: the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, a cabin south of Red Lodge, the canyon country of southern Utah, a high alpine lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone. With each fresh immersion in the wild, he has a “sense of putting the burden down. Like the hole in my life was getting smaller, a smear of black in a bigger world of sky and slickrock and morning glories. As if the magpies were carrying off some of the loss.”


Ferguson places his story within the larger context of the environmental movement. He writes movingly about the power of nature to change people’s lives for the better, including his and Jane’s. This deep relationship with the natural world is the key to his salvation. “I couldn’t have spent the past 30 years watching saplings sprout from the ruin of fallen trees, seeing entire forests burn and then new ones rise from the ashes...seeing mountains pried apart by ice into boulders, the boulders into rocks, and the rocks into gravel and sand, without also surrendering to the fact that nothing we set eyes on, nothing we put our arms around, ever stays exactly the same. ...It’s in the woods just beyond my door where I’m likely to recall that life as we know it wouldn’t even arise in the first place, unless it also passed away.”


The Carry Home is not only a beautiful memorial to the Fergusons' life together, but also a lyrical ode to the wild and a powerful testimony to the necessity of wilderness in maintaining our humanity.



IN THE SHADOW OF THE SABERTOOTH: Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans, and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene (Revised Edition) by Doug Peacock

AK Press, 2013


In the Shadow of the Sabertooth by Doug Peacock takes us back in time to the “Greatest Adventure”: the Ice Age journey of humans into the Americas during the Late Pleistocene. If you thrill at the thought of standing on the edge of the vast uninhabited wilderness that was North America before humans arrived, this book’s for you. If a world of seven billion people seems stiflingly overcrowded to you, if you’re riveted by the notion of gigantic short-faced bears, sabertooth cats, and dire wolves, this book’s for you.


In this High Plains Book Award winner, Peacock explores what we know about the colonization of the Americas, from the time Homo sapiens probably slipped out of Siberia into Alaska sometime after 30,000 years ago to the time the Clovis culture disappeared 12,800 years ago. Peacock presents the scarce evidence and competing theories, gathering research in archaeology, paleontology, glaciology, linguistics, and genetics, including recent findings from the Anzick Clovis site in Montana. What Peacock has to offer that many academics are lacking is his vast experiences wandering through wild country. He has traversed high Arctic polar bear country, paddled down the rugged coast of British Columbia, hiked the dry deserts of Mexico, and lived in close proximity with grizzlies. He compares his own difficulties in foraging for water and food, crossing raging rivers, and co-existing with large carnivores with those the first Americans must have faced.


Peacock combines his academic research, personal experiences and “wandering naturalist’s imagination” to create several short fictional accounts of what the Ice Age pioneers might have experienced, including surviving the frigid white wilderness of the far North, living off the rich bounty of the Pacific coast, and battling gigantic short-faced bears. These fictional renderings are so delicious one hopes Peacock will decide to write an Ice Age novel about the “Greatest Adventure” someday.


As Peacock watches whitebark pine and glaciers disappearing, he contemplates the role climate change and wilderness have played in human evolution. Climate change opened the ice-free corridor and shaped our brains, leading to bold migrations, the invention of the iconic Clovis point, and the great megafaunal extinctions of that time. Peacock argues that humans evolved to respond to immediate threats such as the sabertooth in the bush, but we need to find new ways to adapt to the slower, more deadly beast of global warming.


“We all are children of the Pleistocene,” Peacock says. “All prehistoric action takes place in lands whose remnants today we call wilderness. ...I believe the conservation of wild habitats will play a decisive role in our attempts to adapt to the current shifting climate...wilderness will buy us the kind of time geo-engineering never could.”


This book is a stark reminder that we might not survive our challenging future without the wilderness homeland that formed us, and more importantly we might not want to survive without that wilderness.



BLOOD WILL OUT: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn

Liveright, 2014


The lurid cover of Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out, with its black background marred by a bright red splatter of blood, promises a thrilling true crime story. The book lives up to that promise, telling the tale of a man who calls himself Clark Rockefeller, a pathological liar and master manipulator who might also be a brutal murderer. But it also goes beyond that. At heart this is a story about Walter Kirn and his fumbling search to understand why he let himself be fooled for fifteen years by Clark’s outrageous stories. Kirn’s willingness to expose the messiness of his own character is what moves this memoir from the narrowness of the individual to the deeper waters of the universal.


The saga begins when Kirn agrees to drive a wheelchair-bound dog from an animal shelter in Montana to Clark’s NYC apartment. His motives are many: he is fishing for new book ideas, there is the promise of a generous stipend, and he is driven by his long-standing desire to be accepted by the moneyed gentry that snubbed him at Princeton and Oxford.


There are signs right away that something’s rotten in Rockefeller-land, but Kirn ignores them. In many ways insecurities about class were the driving force behind both Kirn’s and Clark’s actions. Both came from humble beginnings, and both longed to join the American aristocracy. Through the power of stories, Clark reinvents himself as a “Rockefeller,” a progeny of old money, and an eccentric modern art collector with a penchant for disabled Gordon setters.


As every fiction writer knows, “suspension of disbelief” is crucial for any story to work. One of the central themes Kirn explores is his own complicity in being duped. He looks the other way when Clark tells him unbelievable and often contradictory stories because he wants so desperately to believe that a high-rolling Rockefeller would want to hang out with a lowly Kirn. “What a perfect mark I’d been,” Kirn says. “Rationalizing, justifying, imagining. I’d worked as hard at being conned by him as he had at conning me. I wasn’t a victim; I was a collaborator.”


Clark is a serial imposter who forms himself out of the bits and pieces he steals from TV, books, film, and most disturbingly from the dreams and passions of the people he meets and victimizes. As a young man he modeled himself on Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island, and later he took parts of his identity from the man he is accused of killing. He even conjures an imaginary ranch that is eerily similar to Kirn’s very real Montana ranch. “The man was a brain tick,” Kirn says. He “was worse than a murderer and dismemberer. ...He was a cannibal of souls.”


Once Kirn realizes the only power Clark ever had came from the willingness of his listeners to believe, he takes the reins and forms his own narrative. Through the writing of this book, Walter Kirn controls the story of Walter Kirn.




Henry Holt, 2014


We know we are in the hands of a master storyteller from the very first pages of Kim Zupan’s powerful, beautifully-crafted debut novel The Ploughmen. A young boy finds a note saying, “Darling—Come alone to the shed,” and what he finds there sends a chill through the reader that reverberates to the very last page of the book.


The book tells the story of two men, John Gload, a violent killer, and Val Millimaki, the troubled young deputy who guards the old man on the graveyard shift. A bond forms between them as they spend their long nights sitting on opposite sides of the jail bars telling each other stories about their lives. As Gload sits in the shadows and smokes and talks, Val sits under the “sickly purple-blue” fluorescent hall lights and stares into the dark cell, “hypnotized by the disembodied voice.” Gload tells his stories of murder and mayhem with such exquisite detail and raw pathos that even one of the most brutal villains in literary history comes across as human, albeit with one fatal flaw: a gaping hole in his psyche where remorse and empathy normally reside.


The two men share a history as farm boys, children of the immense windswept grain fields of north central Montana, a landscape so lonesome and distant that it left a permanent mark on their souls. They also share childhood tragedies that shaped their lives, sending Val toward the life of a responsible lawman, and Gload toward his eerily detached life of crime.


The searing, lyrical prose, relentless violence, and tenuous moments of reprieve are reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor. Zupan’s characters are broken souls wandering the vast, murky territory between good and evil. Death is everywhere—in the headless, handless bodies that Gload buries and in the corpses that Val and his search dog find scattered across the empty land. “He wondered what in this beautiful country could inspire such evil. As if the wind that swept down from those bleak and frozen crags carried on it, like a microbe to infest the blood, the appetite of wolf and bear.”


In this bleak world, the bond between these two men—the almost fatherly tenderness Gload shows Val, and Val’s refusal to dehumanize Gload the way everyone else does—is what gives this story its humanity. Gload finds the same deliverance with his girlfriend, Francie: “It might have been what he loved most about her, that she seemed to know some things, horrible things, but she forgave him them and this small act—of laying her smooth hand atop his own, which had so recently held the bloodied instruments of his trade—was a sort of absolution.”


Near the end I wondered if Zupan could pull such an intense narrative together into a convincing ending, but I shouldn’t have worried. The disturbing yet quietly redemptive finale to this gripping and psychologically-nuanced tale leaves the reader satisfied.


Bravo, Mr. Zupan.



KEVIN RED STAR: Crow Indian Artist by Daniel Gibson and Kitty Leaken

Gibbs Smith, 2014


Through words and photographs, Daniel Gibson and Kitty Leaken tell the story of Kevin Red Star, one of America’s leading contemporary Native American artists. The book follows Red Star’s journey from a budding young artist on the Crow Reservation in Montana, to his formative years at the nascent Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, his stint at the San Francisco Art Institute, his travels around the world, and finally his return home to Montana.


Red Star grew up sitting “around campfires at night listening to tales of his elders,” and he made a decision early in his career to carry on the tradition of storytelling through his artwork. His distinctive style uses vibrant colors and bold shapes to portray traditional Crow culture. The book is filled with lush reproductions of Red Star’s paintings of warriors, dancers, healers, horses, and tipis. His close attention to detail celebrates the beautiful elk tooth and beaded buckskin dresses, the vibrant face paint and elaborate headdresses and shields, with their horns and feathers, quills and ermine. “Basically I’m a romanticist,” Red Star says. “I like that life of the old days, that closeness to nature. If there is an overall vision to my work, I guess it’s that there’s a lot to be learned from the way things were.”


As a young artist, Red Star was a major player in the burgeoning American Indian art scene. He rode the wave of success, buying a blue Corvette and having a red star inlaid in a gold tooth. “Those fellows were rock stars!” his ex-wife says. “As his star rose, nothing seemed out of reach.” But then a tragedy shattered that golden era. The art community dispersed, and “the pressures and temptations of the life of a rising figure in the Native art scene” tore his marriage apart. “It’s easy to get caught up in the art openings, the social scene,” Red Star says. “I needed to back away and remember what started me off, what was the essence of my being.”


Back in Montana, he renewed his relationship with his family and the Crow culture. “I have to always remember where I came from, this reservation, this land.” Even though Red Star had traveled the world and tasted fame and fortune, he never lost his connection to Montana and the Crow people. “I was Apsaalooke before Santa Fe, and I will always be Apsaalooke,” he says. That strong identity shines through in the paintings and stories collected in this book.




Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013


In Rick Bass’s new novel, All the Land to Hold Us, Bass creates a series of strange and wondrous tales stretching across time and anchored in place, the harsh and hauntingly beautiful sand dunes and salt flats of west Texas.


Everything in this novel is hungry. Bass’s characters are obsessed with extracting their own versions of treasure from the “sere and withholding landscape,” whether that treasure is oil, fossils, artifacts, salt, water, or love. Even the land is voracious, swallowing the drifters and dreamers who travel through.


The book starts with two seemingly separate stories that eventually weave together into one. The first, set in 1966, is the story of a brief love affair between Richard and Clarissa. Richard is a geologist who spends his days hunting for buried oil and his nights pursuing the beautiful and elusive Clarissa. But Clarissa is driven by “no other goal than getting out” of the small town of Odessa. Together they prowl the reefs and cliffs, searching for fossils that Clarissa later sells to fund her escape.


Marie and Max Omo’s story is set in the 1930s, when the young couple moves to the isolated Juan Cordona Lake to harvest salt. Max falls in love with the “savage deprivation of the landscape,” and the “more the landscape withheld from him, the more he had to have.” As Max sinks deeper into his obsession, the family is left “barely hanging on, drinking warm salt water and stale wine...and eating moldy dried mutton.” The unforgiving landscape and the complete lack of tenderness in the Omo family drive Marie and eventually Max into a madness from which only one of them returns.


Bass’s lush descriptions of the ever-shifting sand dunes and salt flats are surreal, beautiful and terrifying. The sand dunes “flowed and shifted with the unpredictable movement of a creature pacing across the land.” Periodically, the whispering sand swallows the Omo’s house with a sibilant sound that “barely entered their dreams.” “By morning the dune had repositioned itself and lay sleeping atop their house as comfortably as an animal,” and they burrow out like badgers to the “clear white sunlight.”


The salt creates its own deadly and unparalleled beauty. Through the centuries, unsuspecting wanderers walk out on the seemingly solid surface of the lake, only to have the salt shift and strand them far from shore. They bake to death and are eventually coated with blowing salt, turning them into glittering, colorful statues in the midday sun. As “the wind whistled through the latticework of open ribs it would make a music, punctuated by the keening that oscillated through the grinning skull,” their arms still outstretched “as if longing had not perished with the decay of their mortal flesh.”


Bass is able to turn even the smallest story into an epic tale. The story of a boy and a catfish in Mexico becomes a tragic coming of age tale about how we are forced to leave our childhood compassion behind as we enter the cruelties and compromises of adulthood. The pursuit of a runaway elephant in the desert becomes a symbol of all the desires we spend our lives chasing after, all the dreams that live and die in our imaginations.


Readers who are moved by the magical things that language can do will enjoy the desert dreamland Bass creates and the mesmerizing tales that unfold there. This is one of those rare books that has the ability to break your heart and then, quite possibly, mend it again.




Grove Press, 2013


Jim Harrison’s new book, Brown Dog: Novellas, brings together five previously published novellas and one new one. Whether you are already a Brown Dog aficionado or this is your first introduction to this hapless, engaging character, having these stories collected under one cover is the perfect way to experience the philosophy of Brown Dog.


B.D. is a Native American man living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a good-natured, working-class backwoodsman who constantly finds himself at odds with the modern world. His desires are simple and grounded in the physical: whiskey, women and the woods are all he needs. He has mastered the art of living in the now, and there is a refreshing Zen-plicity to his uncomplicated desires. As he says, “My favorite thing is just plain walking in the woods. I can do it days on end without getting tired of it. I mix this up a bit with fishing and hunting. Of course I like to make love and drink. That goes without saying.”


When B.D. leaves the simplicity of his beloved woods, he falls into a series of misadventures. He attempts to sell the body of an “Indian chief” he finds at the bottom of Lake Superior, only to come to the possibly delusional notion that the man might be his long lost father. He accidentally reveals the location of secret Indian burial mounds and then teams up with Red Power radicals to try to stop their excavation. He travels to the “foreign country of Los Angeles” to retrieve a stolen bearskin from a movie executive who has no understanding of its sacred worth. He attempts to rescue his adopted fetal-alcohol syndrome daughter from a government boarding school, and he drives a Lakota man to Montana to save him from his deadly addictions. In the final novella, B.D. searches for a way to unite his love of solitude and nature with his growing need for family connections.


There is a mythical quality to B.D.’s sexual escapades. His lust is boundless and almost always reciprocated. Modern psychobabble might label him a sex addict, but B.D. refuses to be confined within the straightjacket of modernity. He is an anachronism: a man who embraces his animal nature and, like Huck Finn, refuses to be “sivilized.”


When the world moves too fast for him, nature is where B.D. finds his balance. As he says, “The woods can be a bit strange. It takes a long time to feel you belong there and then you never again really belong in town.” Away from his rural homeland, he “craved the nothingness of the Upper Peninsula, a feeling he shared with the ancient Chinese that the best life was an uneventful one.” He longs for the company of ravens and the “dense forests...and small lakes... where B.D. would always find complete solace in trout fishing.”


For those who live in the “crush of civilization,” the philosophy of Brown Dog is a cool dip in a rushing trout stream and a much needed reminder of what’s important in life. When he finally gets home from the bustling confusion of L.A., he is “half-dancing through the trees like a circus bear...slapping at the trees and yelling a few nonsense syllables, dancing back to the picnic table where he popped another beer and picked up his Spam sandwich, looking out at late spring’s deep pastel green with the deepest thanks possible.” We are left with the same joyous feeling after reading these novellas.




Melville House; Reprint Edition, 2013


Mary MacLane’s confessional memoir, I Await the Devil’s Coming, caused an uproar when it was first published in 1902. MacLane was a nineteen-year-old living in the frontier mining town of Butte, Montana, a rebellious young woman who refused to conform to the narrow roles society demanded of her. The book was a literary sensation, and she used the profits to escape the confines of her unhappy life in Butte and move to Greenwich Village, where she was free to live the decadent, Bohemian existence she had so long desired.


MacLane shared many traits with other fin de siècle writers, including the alienation, ennui, narcissism, and despair of writers like Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire. She seems fully aware of the international cultural milieu she was writing in, drawing on current trends to create her entertainingly playful vignettes.


MacLane’s goal was to create a truthful portrayal of herself, including “every petty vanity and weakness, every...feeling, every desire.” She lays bare her intense loneliness and need for love, but she also reveals her extreme self-involvement and complete lack of conscience. “I am a genius,” she declares over and over again. “There is none to compare with me.”


She wanders the hills surrounding Butte, a wasteland of poisoned streams and grass killed by acrid smoke from smelters. “I have walked for miles over sand and barrenness,” she says. “Their utter desolateness is an inspiration to the long, long thoughts and to the nameless wanting.”


MacLane declares herself a Sensualist, reveling in the sweet perfume of mint and white hawthorn, the “red, red sunset sky,” and a dinner of fine porterhouse steak and green young onions. “Fame may pass over my head; money may escape me; my one friend may fail me; every hope may fold its tent and steal away...yet still I may hold upright my head, if I have but my steak—and my onions.”


She is hungry for fame and fortune, but most of all she is starving for love. She falls madly in love with unattainable men and women, including her female high school teacher and Napoleon Bonaparte. She wants to marry the Devil, who represents the earthly happiness she has so long been deprived of. “I am ready and waiting to give all that I have to the Devil in exchange for Happiness,” she says. “I wait him eagerly.”


MacLane rails against the limits her gender places on her, saying, “I have the personality, the nature, of a Napoleon, albeit a feminine translation...therefore I do not conquer, I do not even fight, I manage only to exist...Had I been born a man I would by now have made a deep impression of myself on the world...But I am a woman...a lonely, damned thing filled with the red red blood of ambition and desire.”


Against all odds, Mary MacLane broke through the barriers and reached her dreams. The “Wild Woman of Butte” may have had an ego bigger than the Berkeley Pit and ambition larger than Napoleon’s, but she was an inspiration to many young women who felt equally repressed. Even though narcissists are notoriously difficult to be around, they can be devilishly fun to read.




Viking Adult, 2013


The Gray Ghost Murders, the second book in rising star Keith McCafferty’s fly fishing mystery series, brings back private investigator Sean Stranahan and small-town sheriff Martha Ettinger to solve the mystery created when two bodies are found buried on Sphinx Mountain. At the same time, Stranahan is hired to investigate the disappearance of two rare fishing flies, the Gray Ghost and the Quill Gordon, from an elite fly fishing club on the Madison River.


McCafferty’s book takes place almost entirely outdoors in the rivers and mountains of central Montana. On Sphinx Mountain, a grizzly wreaks havoc on the crime scene and the murderer may still be lurking in the woods playing the most dangerous game. Along the Madison River, Stranahan interviews a quirky mix of new west residents and spends his free time knee-deep in the trout-filled water.


Even readers who have never picked up a fly rod will enjoy McCafferty’s lyrical descriptions of fishing. Early on, Stranahan states that all of his “reference points were mountain ranges or trout streams.” When the mystery builds, he heads to the river, saying he “would never make an important decision without turning it over first with a fly rod in his hands.” And it is while fishing that Stranahan muses, “When you begin to count trout you’ve lost sight of the reason to go to the river,” a snippet of river wisdom that encapsulates a way of life.


McCafferty creates an intriguing cast of contemporary western characters that are as natural to this Montana landscape as the grizzlies and trout. Republican Congressman Weldon Crawford is described as looking like “a page in a western wear catalog” with “an ego the size of his mansion.” In contrast, property caretaker Emmitt Cummings is “cowboy head to toe but not out of a catalog, the real thing,” bowlegged with a bucking bronc belt buckle and a mustache “like a restless rodent.”


Stranahan’s fishing guide buddies include Rainbow Sam, a rough-talking river rat who drinks Moose Drool, and Peachy Morris, who more often than not is in the bushes with a female client with his “waders to his ankles.” Stranahan bunks at the Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club, where members spend their days fly fishing and their nights drinking fine bourbon and feasting on bourguignon of elk rump with morel mushrooms. The poorest of the river residents are Sid, a cocky and endearing boy who fishes with a cheap, duct-taped rod, and his father John Deevers, a Texas bully and bigot who drinks Coors in a can.


The Gray Ghost Murders brings these diverse characters together for an engaging romp through Montana’s great outdoors. As with any good murder mystery, the reader’s suspicion shifts from character to character as the story unfolds, weaving the dual stories of buried bodies and missing flies into an entertaining mystery. Although some readers might guess the murderer before the end, there are enough twists and turns in the finale to leave even a diehard mystery reader satisfied. If you are looking for a book to take with you into the mountains and rivers this summer, The Gray Ghost Murders is a good choice. The only thing I’ll give away is this: the dog lives.



LIGHT OF THE WORLD by James Lee Burke

Simon & Schuster, 2013


Light of the World, the 20th book in veteran mystery writer James Lee Burke’s popular Dave Robicheaux series, brings Robicheaux, a Louisiana detective, back to the saloons and ranches of western Montana.


Robicheaux and his wife Molly, his daughter Alafair, his best friend Clete and Clete’s long-lost daughter Gretchen return to spend the summer on novelist Albert Hollister’s ranch in the Bitterroot Mountains. It isn’t long before danger arrives in the form of an arrow that whisks by Alafair’s cheek while she’s jogging. Shortly after that incident a young Blackfeet woman, Angel Deer Heart, is found brutally murdered. The situation turns creepy when Robicheaux finds a messianic biblical message scrawled on a cave wall near the ranch and Alafair spots the sadistic serial killer Asa Surrette, a man who supposedly died in a fiery crash in Kansas.


Burke creates a cruel and irrational world, and his characters are complicated, conflicted, and burdened with the stains of human existence. Robicheaux is a deeply flawed man driven by personal demons and haunted by past tragedies. His best friend Clete is a violent and self-destructive alcoholic, but he is also a good-hearted man who is trying to do right in an insane world.


The book digs deep into the wounds of class inequality. Corporations and the wealthy are powerful and heartless; the poor are powerless and either defiant or defeated. Wealthy oil baron Love Younger is one of the powerful. He grew up in a dirt-floor shack but now lives in a 10,000 square foot mansion surrounded by subservient minions and mercenaries. The elite Younger clan also includes Love’s greedy and resentful son, Caspian, and Caspian’s enigmatic wife, Felicity.


Wyatt Dixon is one of the many powerless—a rodeo cowboy and evangelical Christian who was born in a boxcar and spent his childhood picking cotton and corn. While in prison for killing a rapist, he was ravaged by electroshock treatments and chemical cocktails that permanently melted his brain. All he wants now is to be left alone, but he continues to face police brutality and prejudice.


Light of the World is a relentless exploration into the nature of evil that resides in all of us. Pure evil is represented by Asa Surrette, a killer who quotes Proust and Beckett and who thrills at the violent games he plays with his victims, a bestial creature who emits a horrible odor and who might possibly be the antichrist.


History is woven throughout this story, tying the violence of the past with the violence of the present, including the brutality of the oil-shale industry, Vietnam, child abuse, and especially the genocide of Native Americans. This is our legacy as a nation; this is the society in which serial killers are formed.


Burke’s book pulls us down into the darkest corridors of the human soul and then releases us back into the glimmering light of this world. It is a journey worth taking if you dare.