Monday, May 19, 2008


When I was working on my bio of Bob, I would joke that I didn’t know whether I should say I was writing nonfiction, though I was carefully leaving out or even changing a few things to protect the guilty, or whether I should say I was writing fiction and tell the real truth. This has become rather a barbed issue in publishing these days, with some people claiming to be far more wicked than they turn out to be when investigated. I would say that Mary Clearman Blew’s most recent book, “Jackalope Dreams,” is over on the side of fiction that is true.

When I was trying to write in the Sixties, some guy said carelessly, “There are no women writing in Montana except Mary Clearman Blew.” (Actually, Mary Clearman in those days -- up in Havre.) It made me mad, but he really meant “getting published” and it was true. So Mary, writing on the trail I couldn’t get my feet onto. But I loved her books. So over the last half-century I bought ‘em and read ‘em and kept ‘em. She was born the same year I was, 1939, same as Ivan Doig and Jim Welch. The books came steadily:

Lambing Out,” 1977
Runaway: A Collection of Stories,” 1990
All But the Waltz: A Memoir of Five Generations in the Life of a Montana Family” 1991
Balsamroot: A Memoir,” 1994
Bone Deep in Landscape: Writing, Reading, and Place” 1999
Sister Coyote” 2000
Writing Her Own Life: Imogene Welch, Western Rural Schoolteacher.” 2004
Jackalope Dreams” 2008

There are some edited or introduced books and a few other things, but these are Blew’s main books. You can tell whether I had money or not: when I had money I bought hard backs (4 of 8). Here ends the competition.

This particular book, “Jackalope Dreams” is not just a novel but a thriller with a suspenseful plot, more like Hillerman, thick with local truths. This is contemporary, the dilemma of old ways and lives not quite gone yet and up against modern twists like drugs, religious delusion, posse comitatus fantasies, and human perversion that only the kids seem to understand exists. Against those twistings of the Romance of the West shines John Perrine, a Denver lawyer who expresses his love in a re-enactment of a train robbery, like the Charlie Russell Choo-Choo that operates out of Great Falls. (You can live this part of the novel!) What a fine hero he turns out to be, soft-handed and a little fat, but solid and warm -- a refuge in a bewildering time. He just ain’t no Lassiter.

The heroine’s father, however, was rather more like Lassiter, making time stand still even though he bankrolled his ranch with his daughter’s teaching paychecks. Blew has said that this was the life she had been expected to live, but lucky she didn’t because times change. Several other noted women writers of the West made the same choice: Judy Blunt, Linda Hasselstrom... Gretel Erlich come in from outside, as did I. But now we make common cause. Still, those hard-handed, hard-headed men haunt all of us, I think. Mary Blew just goes ahead and writes the ghosts into the story. After all, they are still players.

The most moving and emotionally true moment comes almost at the beginning of the book when Corey’s father, sitting in his pickup in the back of the ranch, shoots himself in the head just as Corey on horseback comes looking for him. It is sunset. She simply opens the passenger door, slides in, and sits beside her dead father until it is dark. No screaming meemies. No futile revivals. Just a last sharing while the world and the body cool. If you’ve read the earlier memoirs, you’ll know that under this fiction is bone fact.

As well, that exasperating Ariel, who is forced into a far different kind of punishment, the kind that little girls face everywhere, is an expression of a real relationship in Blew’s life. Ariel, in attempts to escape so frantic that she is like a doe hung-up on a fence, drives the plot by shaking Corey out of her complacency -- first getting her fired from her teaching job and, finally, becoming the daughter she never gave birth to because of serving the ranch. In the process Corey goes back to her painting, so long ignored, even though all the people in her life are skeptical -- except one, a long-ago artist-lover who understood, but not enough to make a life with her so he only persists as a voice.

The second and third growth trees that thicket the old ranches are webbed with game trails that the kids follow to hidden places the way kids always do. THEY know about the drugs, they know about the cached weapons, they know about the abuses. Some buckle and join the so-called adult men. Some stand against them, trying to do right though their resources are very limited. The law is underground, unrecognized, waiting for something to blow up -- and it does.

Many traces of the 19th century persist in Montana, esp. in the old towns now shrinking and in the old ranch headquarters not yet torn down. More patterns are unseen inside the people, though they still have as much power as the ghost voices in Corey’s head. Outsiders have a hard time catching on, even the ones that mean well and will eventually be part of a new world here.

A book like this has a lot of power under the surface. Many people will read it in a rush to see what happens next, but others will reflect, see metaphors and dynamics that are all around them. Then the book becomes evidence for the ongoing work of living on the high prairie, whether born here or not. Corey’s artwork stands for New Vision, creativity without denying the past, in the midst of second and third-growth culture. The secret to good writing, in part, is this multi-level quality.

If you’re trying to write, as I still am, this url gives you access to some suggestions from Mary Clearman Blew, Mary Clear-Headed Deft-Handed Blew. Bless her.

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