Montana's Literary Treasures

A nameless narrator discovers his connection to Blackfeet ancestors. A Spanish American guide helps track down Chief Joseph’s people in the Bears Paw Mountains, then marries a Nez Perce woman. A gifted teacher works with her pupils in a one-room schoolhouse during World War II, suffering a series of traumas that help her mature. A pained lyric voice describes epiphanies in the small-town bars of Montana.

 

These are some of the many characters we meet in Montana literature, an astonishing archive of engaging writing, daunting challenges, and haunting insights. Whether it’s James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, Andrew Garcia’s Tough Trip through Paradise, Mildred Walker’s Winter Wheat, or Richard Hugo’s Collected Poems, these works immerse us in the lives, the experiences, the small victories of Montana’s diverse peoples.

Literature in the state has been remarkable from the start, as evidenced by native stories available in The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology and the personal narratives of Plenty-coups, Pretty Shield, and Lame Deer. We also have access to early accounts of white settlement, including Granville Stuart’s Forty Years on the Frontier, Nannie Alderson’s A Bride Goes West, and “Teddy Blue” Abbott’s We Pointed Them North. Making a living was never easy for our ancestors, yet writers show how humor, innovation, and grit can yield a sustaining life.

Second- and third-generation Montanans have extended this legacy of place-bound writing, translating founding tales into modern literature of distinction. A.B. Guthrie Jr. calls into question the hunger, the ambition of American culture in The Big Sky and later novels. D’Arcy McNickle dramatizes the lives of mixed-race and native characters in The Surrounded and Wind from an Enemy Sky, showing how an in-between status can lead to tragedy. Joseph Kinsey Howard famously declares in Montana, High, Wide and Handsome that our state has been "the cracked end of the whip" yielded by eastern financiers, politicians, and boosters. Ivan Doig has revisited many of the defining experiences of Montana history, locating characters on late-nineteenth-century ranches, the Fort Peck Dam, and (most famously) the sheep ranges of central Montana. And Norman Maclean shows that fly fishing can become the vehicle for meditation on matters familial and theological.

These male stories have their vital counterpart in brilliant writing by Montana’s women, whether we think of Mary Clearman Blew’s searing account of homesteading in All But the Waltz, or Deirdre McNamer’s offbeat humor and unflinching honesty in novels such as Rima in the Weeds and Red Rover, or Debra Magpie Earling’s celebration of the ultimate survivor in her Native American novel, Perma Red, or Judy Blunt’s frank assessment of the ranching life in Breaking Clean.

And yet such a list barely does justice to the variety, the exuberance, the daring of Montana writing. We should not neglect our poets, ranging from the cowboy art of Wally McRae and Paul Zarzyski to the exquisite sensory precision and verbal craft of Greg Pape, Sandra Alcosser, Rick Newby, Tami Haaland, Melissa Kwasny, and many others. And what of those outlandish “outlanders” who have helped us re-see Montana through their witty, often satirical lenses: Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, and Richard Ford? And let’s not forget the rediscovered Thomas Savage, both native son and acerbic outsider.

Readers can discover much more about this sustaining literary tradition in the critical works of William W. Bevis (Ten Tough Trips), Rick Newby and Suzanne Hunger (Writing Montana), Ken Egan (Hope and Dread in Montana Literature), and Brady Harrison (All Our Stories are Here).

Range far and wide in the literature of this place. You’ll discover many geographies of the heart, many ecologies of the spirit, many guideposts for hope in a tough, beautiful land.

 

Ken Egan
Executive Director
Humanities Montana