Reading Montana

wmt_mapAny trip to Montana means finding an unread Ivan Doig title, and there on my shelves was one just waiting: The Eleventh Man (2009). Unusual for Doig’s novels, this one is based not only in Montana but around the globe as its protagonist, Ben Reinking, war correspondent tracks his former football teammates as a special assignment during World War II. This means the reader gets insight into the fighting in the Pacific theatre and Europe as well as the defense along the Northwest Coast.

His primary base though is an airfield in Great Falls, Montana where women pilots—WASPs—fly P-39 planes that will be transferred to Russian pilots as part of the US Lend-Lease Program to help its allies on the Eastern Front. Predictably, Ben falls for the lead pilot, Cass Standish, whose husband is stationed in the Pacific. They have a passionate romance, and it’s never clear which man she will eventually choose.

Doig’s premise for the plot derives from a factoid that Montana lost more soldiers in the war than the law of averages predicted, and in fact, all of the players from one of Montana State University’s football teams perished. The fictional version is Treasure State’s “Supreme Team,” who was unbeaten in their senior year of 1941. Ben follows each of the players, who are developed for the most part rather superficially.

While I was reading this novel, I had a lot of “I didn’t know that” moments, particularly about the WASPs and conscientious objectors, and I can trust the facts in a work of fiction by Doig as he has a PhD in History and takes care with his research.

The bartender, Tom Harry of Medicine Lodge, who serves Ben drinks and loans him a Packard and gas coupons, is a minor character in The Eleventh Man but featured in The Bartender’s Tale. Harry also worked as a bartender in the novel Bucking the Sun, which focuses on the construction of the Fort Peck Dam. Revisiting characters is a hallmark of Doig’s work, most recently true with the three-book series that features Morrie Morgan: The Whistling Season, Work Song, and the soon to appear Sweet Thunder. Morrie really stole the show in the first novel and moved center stage for the second, which is located in Butte. I must admit that I pass Butte as quickly as possible when driving I-15 to northern Montana; its pit mining has left a horrific scar on the land.

I much prefer the more pastoral Montana trilogy, which includes my favorite novel of all time, Dancing at the Rascal Fair. Its companions are the notable English Creek and the less interesting Ride with Me, Mariah Montana. Although Rascal Fair was published after English Creek, chronologically, it begins the series with two Scottish immigrants arriving in Montana in the late 19th century. English Creek picks up the next generation of McCaskill and Barclay families and features Jick, an endearing fourteen year old, and finally Mariah Montana finds a much older Jick riding along while his daughter covers the state’s centennial. Personally, I find the older the setting, the better the novel, but Mariah offers a great tour of “the last best place.”

Because my trip led me to Helena, Doig’s Prairie Nocturne was a good choice, focusing on singer Susan Duff, who first appeared in Rascal Fair. She is given the unlikely assignment of voice lessons for a black chauffeur in 1920s Montana.  But the setting also includes the Harlem Renaissance.

Western Montana also figures in Mountain Time, less of a favorite, given its contemporary setting, but interesting for its inclusion of Bob Marshall, an outdoorsman for whom the Bob Marshall Wilderness is named—a stunning geographic area that is most likely accessible via a pack or backpack trip. The Two Medicine Country, which includes Gros Ventre, the town Doig uses most often fictionally, encompasses the Dupuyer or Choteau of his youth. This is definitely Big Sky Country, and Doig is at his best evoking that landscape.

Bullhead Lake, Glacier Country

Bullhead Lake, Glacier Country

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Refrigerator Canyon, near Helena

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Avalanche Creek Gorge

Choteau, Montana

Choteau, Montana

In addition to a goodly number of novels, Doig has written two memoirs, This House of Sky and Heart Earth, the former his first book and a finalist for the National Book Award. It is hands down one of most lyrical books I’ve ever read. That said, I realize that some readers find Doig’s prose a bit dense or too purple prose with description that distracts. I admire the care with which he constructs his narratives and grimace only on occasion with a phrase that has perhaps reached too far.

Given the focus of this trip—Montana—I’d be remiss not to include Norman Maclean’s wonderful story, A River Runs Through It (1976), that matches Doig’s work in lyricism. Maclean grew up in Missoula although the film version of the novella seems to be set nearer to Bozeman along the Gallatin River. But on this trip, I was thinking more of the posthumously published book, Young Men and Fire (1992), which details the tragic loss of 13 firefighters who perished in a blow-up at Mann Gulch near Helena. We hiked Refrigerator Canyon, not far from this area, which also includes the funky “town” of York, named for the black man who accompanied the Lewis & Clark Expedition. (Try the burgers at the local bar situated along the Missouri River, which features a York candy as a take-away.) A blow-up fire is also an important part of Doig’s English Creek. One of the firefighters at Mann Gulch set what is thought to be the first escape fire—lighting a fire and then lying down in the burnt area, hoping that the main fire would burn around him. It worked for him.

This 1949 tragedy was surpassed while we were on the road by the one in Yarnell,Arizona in which 19 Granite Mountain firefighters perished.  One hopes that their story is told as eloquently as Maclean did for those in the Mann Gulch disaster.

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The Syringa Tree: Another To Kill a Mockingbird-like Novel for South Africa

Pamela Gien’s novel, The Syringa Tree (2007), began life as a one-person play, which won an Obie Award. The narrator, who is six, opens the story in 1963. She lives with her family in Johannesburg, where her father is a physician. As with other South African novels, this one, too, features a native nanny, Salamina, who is Xhosa, and beloved by Elizabeth—“Lizzy.”  The little girl has a perennial problem with wetting her pants, which drives her mother crazy. The family is considered strange for these parts, the father Jewish and the mother Catholic. They find refuge at Clova, a farm in the country owned by her grandparents. The narrative follows two families, one white and one black, over the generations.

This memory style novel covers the same ground as so many South African novel: the naïve narrator trying to come to grips with Apartheid and the seemingly senseless rules and regulations that separate races.

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Gien wrote and performed in the play, which evokes the memories of the young girl and in which she takes on about two dozen roles filling out the other characters. It sounds like a tour de force. Some productions of it in the States have used multiple actors.

The novel is rather dense for its first 100 pages, and other readers have noted, “just stick with it” as it is worthwhile and very touching.

Given the looming passing of former President Mandela, I was particularly struck by a passage early in the novel in which one of the doctor’s patients decries the cheeky native who insists on being called “Mister” instead of his first name, Nelson. He appears in court dressed in animal skins, his tribal dress, as Lizzy’s father explains to her. The grandfather adds, “They won’t rest until they’ve bloody locked them all up, Isaac. Where the hell they’re going to put them, I have no idea.”

Robben Island is where they put them–Mandela spending 18 of his years in prison there. It is now a popular tourist site with former prisoners conducting the tours. Half a world away in Washington, DC, an exhibition of the Robben Island Shakespeare reminds one of how important books and reading are to people. This particular copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, covered with Diwali cards, was allowed in the one-book-per-prisoner rule when its owner insisted it was his Hindu Bible. Over the course of his internment, he shared Shakespeare with the other prisoners, 34 of them choosing a particular passage by which to sign his name. Notably, its owner chose the highly appropriate lines from The Tempest, in which Caliban says, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother.”

Mandela chose these lines from Julius Caesar:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.”

A series of sketches by Mandela, made in the early 2000s, reflects on his prison life and accompanies the exhibition.

This is an apt time in history to reflect on the enormous influence one person can have to do good.

Near the end of The Syringa Tree Mandela rises like Lazarus from his tomb. Her father sends the adult Lizzy, living in Pasadena, the newspaper with its bold headline, “Vote, the Beloved Country.”

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