Thursday, May 04, 2006


Book festivals in Montana began in Missoula when the literati there were triumphant and then they spread to Billings which is always willing to compete with the other cities in other parts of the state. Those who look at a map with a geo-eco eye will see that the latter is out on the eastern badlands and the former is tucked into a confluence of valleys on the western side of the Rockies. In fact, there is a rumor that the whole Flathead Valley was supposed to be Idaho, with the Rockies serving as a boundary with Montana, but a surveyor was bribed to draw the line that put the valley on the Montana side, because there was supposed to be gold. There was not.

Great Falls grew up in the middle of the state (sort of) around the enormous power of the waterfalls there, which supported refineries for Butte minerals. It’s also a market town for the Golden Triangle (wheat). For a long time Billings and Great Falls tipped back and forth as the biggest cities in the state. Great Falls originally had a personality shaped by Paris Gibson, the founder, who believed in planting trees and in culture. But they are late to the party of book festivals. And Dutch elm disease has severely damaged the trees.

Nevertheless, Sue Hart -- a Billings academician and expert on Montana literature -- was able to name off a community of fine writers who once clustered around Great Falls: Joseph Kinsey Howard, Mildred Walker, A.B. Guthrie, Jr., and so on. They were not academic (often journalists) and maybe one of the reasons they finally dispersed was that there is no state university in Great Falls. The base for the Festival of the Book is not a school but the library. Great Falls used to have one of the best libraries in the state, but has become a mere shell of its former self, replacing a fine collection of books with computers and rocking chairs (I kid you not!) at the study tables.

Maybe not everyone is aware that states usually have two universities: one dedicated to the humanities (Missoula) and one dedicated to agriculture (Bozeman). In Montana there are three other significant colleges: Havre, which tends to be vocational but sustained Mary Clearman Blew; Dillon, which educates teachers; and Montana State University-Billings which is close enough to Bozeman to at least share a public radio station. Butte has a highly respected engineering and geology school. The tribal community colleges are still wild cards.

There are two sort of “proto-universities” in Great Falls -- one the religiously run College of Great Falls and the other a technical school. Both focus on older students and have a shortage of dormitories since most people live at home. The dominating presences in town, now that the smelter and railroad have closed down, is Malmstrom Air Force Base with its associated missions, and the medical community, currently engaged in a very unseemly food fight over who gets to be a monopoly. Soldiers and doctors are not the humanities-appreciators they used to be. At one time they were the backbone of the Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

The librarian assigned to create and administer the Festival of the Book is a soft-spoken woman of considerable dedication. She thought that this time it would draw an audience to explore the relationships between book and movie. It was not her fault that the weather was at its most glorious and that the conference was in the basement.

First up was Norma Ashby, who clearly knows more movie stars than anyone else in town because for many years she hosted a local interview program and because she has always been in the forefront with the Ad Club and their famous CMR birthday auction. She can tell some pretty wild tales, like the time a rattlesnake handler was being interviewed, brought out a pregnant rattler, and suddenly slit her up the belly, releasing venomous baby rattlers all over the studio. Her book is “Movie Stars and Rattlesnakes.”

A formal reception and reading featured Janet Muirhead Hill, who has her own publishing business and writes therapeutic books for kids; Marcus Stevens, best-known recently for his two books (“Useful Girl” and “The Curve of the World”) but also an active filmer of commercials; and Annick Smith, probably best known for producing “Heartland,” but also a writer and a major supporter of literature in the Missoula community.

I’m a one-day attender of most everything because I hate being gone overnight, so I was there only on Saturday when Sue Hart showed her fine DVD of Dorothy Johnson, a woman who was both an academic and journalistic writer, and who became a much beloved author in the golden days of magazine short stories. Several of her stories were made into smash hit movies: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “A Man Called Horse,” and “The Hangiing Tree.” She was kissed by a few movie stars, too! Sue knew her personally and has captured her spirit both warmly and extensively with many stories and photos. In fact, that’s what I really went to the Festival to see. $14.95 to buy the DVD: Gravel in her Gut and Spit in her Eye.” (Norma Ashby is right -- we don’t advertise our works enough.)

A discussion about movies and books was moderated by Sue Hart with Annick, her son Andrew, Marcus, and Janet offering opinions. Our strongest opinion was MORE, MORE, MORE!!!

Ted Geoghegan spoke about writing horror films, but I missed that because of a long lunch and because ordinary life these days is horrible enough.

Then Andrew Smith, who is a twin (brother Alex) told us about filming “The Slaughter Rule” which has won prizes and excellent reviews. The movie is about a boy growing up and facing a (yes) horrible life, through the medium of 6-man football. Not my milieu, but definitely my place -- filmed mostly in Choteau and Heart Butte, both of which I can see from here. (Well, I can see the part of the Rockies they are on the east side of.) David Morse is a damaged man who insists on coaching -- maybe for the wrong reasons -- and the boy is played by Ryan Gosling who faces the death of his father, more-or-less desertion by his sleep-around stewardess mother, a first and failed love affair, racism, and bad weather. (Bad weather is a serious matter here.)

No need to tell you more than that. The movie has a website: and you can buy the DVD commercially.

The consensus of the writers and directors, plus some of the audience, is that the commercial values of studios and producers (greed-heads) have overtaken and are crushing what should be far more creative and accessible. As Andrew put it, “Producers think that when they call a meeting and throw around a few wild ideas based on what has already succeeded in the past, they are working. But in fact they are doing NOTHING. The WORK is done by someone who sits down and word-by-word, scene-by-scene makes the story real.” This was greeted with cries of recognition and cheering.

Well, heck, that’s the way we do war these days, too. So why weren’t there Malmstrom people sitting in the room listening?


Ted G. said...

I'm sorry you missed my presentation at the Festival of the Book in May. I believe that many Great Falls people felt the same way, as I had a very small turnout. Just rest assured that while you may think "the world is horrible enough these days", I am not a horrible person for what I do. Had you been at my presentation, you would have found it one of the funnier, more light-hearted hours spent at the festival. I'm sorry you - like so many others - felt the need to skip out on it. It was rather disappointing.
~ ted g.

prairie mary said...

No whining, Ted. I wasn't about to give up a free lunch with Richard S. Wheeler and Sue Hart (his wife) for anything. Horror is not my cup of tea. And I do not mistake a genre for a gent -- that is, I'm perfectly well aware that people who write horror are not horrible.

God knows that I've preached to many a small audience myself and no doubt will again.

Prairie Mary