Probably the best known Montana story is Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, now known sarcastically by locals as A Realtor Runs Through It. Maclean’s transcendent, irresistible picture of Montana a century ago is of a piece with the work of writers like Ivan Doig, who single-handedly increased the population of tiny White Sulphur Springs, Montana, with his 1977 memoir This House of Sky; and Wallace Stegner, who wrote, “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope.” The West trades on its iconography, and many writers satisfy the hunger for that epic, legendary place. But there is a New West and a new Montana, which can be as urban as its small towns can be isolated. A fresh generation of writers is telling these stories, some set deep in the territory of classical Westerns, others without a Marlboro man in sight.
In writing my debut novel, The Home Place, I had to bust some Western mythology to tell the truth. There is a cowboy, but he’s educated and conflicted about his decision to return to his father’s land. There is an ancestral homestead, but it has a meth lab in the barn. There is a solid, manly older brother, but he’s a recovering alcoholic vet trying to find a way to live with integrity in a town that doesn’t always accept the life he’s building with his gay partner. The returning protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, would just as soon catch the next flight back to Seattle and sees little romance in the struggling family and harsh landscape she left. The scenery is iconic, but also threatening and threatened, at risk from runaway mineral development and the gradual dissolution of families that have held onto a frontier lifestyle well past its sell-by date in modern America.
Among my guideposts in writing this tale were plainspoken Montana writers who aren’t afraid to record the domestic violence, religious fundamentalism, racism, poverty, repression, and environmental destruction that are as much a part of the West as grand sunsets and sagebrush. The steel core at the heart of these books is the will to survive, which often means holding in all other human emotion and instinct that might undermine that goal. What their characters lack in flamboyance the writers make up for in the raw power of their stories.
Judy Blunt, Breaking Clean. Many Montana stories are about getting out. Blunt left the eastern Montana ranch country where she grew up and writes about that history in a memoir so powerful and honest that the reader is almost uncomfortable imagining the reactions of Blunt’s real-life characters. When 30-year-old John seeks 18-year-old Judy’s hand as helpmeet on the 36,000 acre family spread, Judy longs mutely for her mother’s encouragement into another sort of life. Her mother merely kneads the daily bread and says, “He’s a good man.” John only says “I love you” once in their married life but “never took it back, did I?” When her writing distracts Judy from producing lunch promptly for the haying crew, her father-in-law smashes the dearly bought typewriter with a sledgehammer. The women in her family die young from childbearing and harsh living. The men remarry, move on. A creeping sense develops that Judy fled not just a stifling culture but a genuine existential threat. A person like her could not be allowed to survive in this place. Her willingness to tell the story unvarnished, stripped of sunsets and raptures about the land, is a revelation in itself, a 20th century non sequitur that defies all expectation.
Larry Colton, Counting Coup. Colton took a lot of heat from locals for this unyielding, journalistic take on small town high school basketball rivalries in eastern Montana. He became part of the story, living in tiny Hardin and following the girls’ team through a thrilling, ultimately tragic championship season. The great devotions, harsh realities, and racial tensions of reservation-edge basketball make for a riveting tale. Nobody really gets out in this story, which only ups the pressure-cooker quality.
Emily Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Danforth takes on the unabashed reformist homophobia of a small Montana city in her cool eyed 2012 debut about soon-to-be 13-year-old Cam. The setting is honey sweet Americana—the swim team, the ranch, the benevolent grandmother serving Ritz and cheddar for lunch—but when Cam loses her parents in an accident, her aunt’s old-time religion becomes the new regime, just as Cam begins to explore a sexuality that the Main Street churches condemn. Danforth lays out a predictably tragic course of events with nuance and a light hand, sticking close to Cam and the path her aunt forces upon her, making clear that even in dark days there are friends and genuine redemption.
Melanie Rae Thon, The Voice of the River. In Thon’s experimental novel, the river itself owns a perspective and a consciousness that draws in everything around it. Seventeen-year-old Kai Dionne jumps into a half-frozen river to save his dog, Talia, and the 24-hour drama begins. Thon’s fearless poetic currents carry us through the stories of a community separated by private pain but united by the common mission to save Kai and Talia, as well as Thon’s deep empathy.
James Welch, Winter in the Blood. Welch’s prose is the opposite of luminous, that book blurb word that ought to be outlawed for overuse. It’s punch-you-in-the-face brutal, as Welch wants you to understand life on and near a northern Montana reservation. He does not shy away from violence and alcoholism but provides a context that will be as foreign to most Americans as the last National Geographic special. Welch wastes no words, troubles with no digressions. His voice, like his story, is pure and true, like winter light on Montana’s Hi-Line, where survival is the only virtue.