Books: Reading the West

Terry Tempest Williams visits and revisits 12 national parks in her new book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (Sarah Crichton Books, $27). 

Williams’ latest is a thoughtful series of personal stories, natural histories, and meditations published to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service, the protectors of the public spaces set aside, as the motto says, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” 

The idea of what people mean to the parks seems most appropriate for a book celebrating this particular centennial. After the establishment of Yellowstone — the first national park — in 1872, another 44 years would pass before the official protections afforded by the formation of the Park Service would be put into place. Now, a century later, there are 58 parks in the system, from battlefields to deserts. And the 12 parks that Williams illuminates in this book cover a cross section of the different sorts of national park experiences that record crowds of visitors — more than 300 million each year — are now able to have. Yet, in each essay, she offers history and perspectives and a connection to each place that is both universal and deeply personal. Part natural history, part sociological and anthropological exploration, it is Williams’ voice as a skilled memoirist (her previous titles include Refuge, Leap, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and When Women Were Birds) that comes through most clearly in her musings on what national parks mean to us — and as the jacket copy puts it, “what we mean to them.”

From the opening essay on Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming to the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in California, with stops in Acadia in Maine and Big Bend in Texas, these essays are about the parks to be sure, but they’re more about the people. Williams paints a deft portrait of the grandeur or quiet majesty of each of the places she revisits. It’s the people in the essays who shape them, however. Her elderly father is her travel partner in Grand Teton, where his oil and gas career background informs her story about the land, alongside her childhood memories. Oil and gas development makes an appearance in many of these essays — Williams doesn’t shy away from the inherent tension and ongoing conflict in the clash between energy and environmental interests. Neither preachy nor prescriptive, her words confront the issues head on, as does the official battlefield guide at Gettysburg who proclaims her own interpretation of history to tourists. Williams’ choice to report dispassionately allows the reader to consider all sides. Yet her essays on Acadia and Big Bend National Park shine with so much ardent love and affection that they read as clear calls to action for the next 100 years of park protection. 

Illustrated with spare and intelligent black-and-white photos from a variety of fine photographers, including Sally Manna and Lee Friedlander, this is a guidebook of sorts, a tour of some of the greatest natural and historical settings in the U.S. — and a guide to what’s best within those of us who care for them, who choose to protect them, and who struggle with their protection. 

The Flood Girls (Gallery Books, $25), the first novel by Montanan Richard Fifield, has become a small blockbuster since its release and promotion by Simon & Schuster — and famous for gaining a jacket blurb from the late Jackie Collins. It has been variously described as raucous and uproarious, and vividly true to life in its depiction of small-town life and women’s relationships. And it lives up to the hype. 

The fictional Quinn, Montana, a town with a population of just under a thousand, is at once a stand-in for little rural towns all over the West and a special, quirky bed of insanity all its own. Like Fannie Flagg’s Whistle Stop, Alabama, it is full of characters at various points along the redemption continuum, longtime feuds, and a mother-daughter relationship that may be as unsalvageable as the trailer that Rachel Flood has just inherited from her late father, a trailer she’s just moved into after nearly a decade away from her hometown and all of the people she wronged there. 

The destruction Rachel left in her wake when she left town pretty much guaranteed that no one in Quinn ever hoped to see her at a homecoming game or class reunion — especially her mother, Laverna Flood, the owner of the local bar, the women’s softball team coach and sponsor, and all-around queen bee. When Rachel slips back into town to take ownership of her father’s rundown trailer, she makes an appearance at her mother’s bar, the Dirty Shame. Having arrived just in time for a fundraiser for the local fire department, she immediately finds herself face-to-face with the bar’s regulars, most of whom either hate her on their own or out of solidarity with (or fear of) the tough-as-nails proprietress of the establishment. But Rachel is determined to get past Step 9 in her recovery program and make amends — tough when you need to make amends to an entire town and even your mother refuses to speak to you. 

Along for the ride, as Rachel learns to forgive herself and to let them all forgive her, are a raucous set of characters: the women of the Flood Girls, the perennially-losing softball team, the lesbian silver miners (half of whom seem to be named Mabel), volunteer firemen (all of whom seem to be named Jim), an assortment of born-again Christians and other motley townsfolk who find their way into the Dirty Shame, a 12-year-old Madonna and Jackie Collins aficionado named Jake, who lives next door to Rachel and takes refuge from his bigoted stepfather. After Laverna is injured during an attempted robbery — and after the right fielder of the Flood Girls suddenly resigns, Laverna has to reach out to Rachel, and puts her both out in right field and behind the bar. Over the course of the team’s first-ever winning season, people and attitudes change, of course, but it’s never simple as secrets are revealed and relationships shift. Fifield’s vivid descriptions, clear characterizations, and moments of poignancy and tragedy amid the hilarity (Laverna would fit right in with the Steel Magnolias: “If you can’t find anything nice to say about someone, maybe you should just set them on fire”) make the journey of the softball season and Rachel’s redemption an unforgettable one. 

Contrasted with the hilarity and melodrama of The Flood Girls, is the inaugural Meadowlark Award–winning novel, The Actor by Beth Hunter McHugh (Riverbend, $22.95). This debut is a quieter novel, set in an idyllic, fictional Montana university town in the late 1960s. It’s beautifully written and evocative of the time, the place, and the inner worlds of teenager Grace and her younger sister Franny. Poignant, elegant, understated, precise, and lovely are apt descriptors. Thoughtful and insightful also apply to this book about redemption and reinvention in a small Montana town, very different from Quinn, but unique and true to its setting in the landscape and time period.

Seen through the eyes of the sisters at the center of this novel, the adult world that they are separate from (but keen observers of) is a free-spirited bohemian one, but still subject to the restraints and mores of a midcentury academic world. Mysteries and tragedies linger just out of their reach, and McHugh demonstrates that she is a master of pacing as she drops breadcrumbs leading to the answers that the girls seek. 

One of the “secrets” at the heart of The Actor is revealed early in the book when Grace and Franny’s father, a former actor and drama professor at the university, leaves his family and heads to New York with a visiting actor with whom he has fallen in love. As the girls and their gorgeous and intelligent law professor/poet mother cope with his departure and the inevitable repercussions, more secrets are revealed, as is the inner world of a young girl navigating her teenage relationships and learning about herself as she tries to accept the changes that have come into her world. 

The biennial Meadowlark Award for women writers was originally established as a short-story contest for college writers, but it has now been reconfigured to fulfill its founder’s desire to encourage women writers. The new criteria stipulate that it will be awarded for books (fiction or nonfiction) on Montana by women writers who have never before published a book. Named for the Montana coming-of-age memoir When the Meadowlark Sings by Nedra Sterry, and endowed through her book royalties, it comes with a cash prize and publication by Riverbend Publishing out of Helena. 


Steve Galletta’s Fly Fishing the Bighorn River (Stackpole, $29.95) is a comprehensive guide to this impressive Wyoming and Montana fishery by a veteran guide, and carrying it along with you will be like having a guide in your pocket. The color photographs throughout are both instructive and evocative, including aspirational scenic and “money” shots of trophy-sized catches, plus more than 50 fly patterns and color maps. Solid natural history and details on hatches, equipment, and tackle advice, plus short interviews with top Bighorn River guides, fill in even more detail on this river which, measured in fish per mile, has more trout in it than any other in the U.S. The access information (including the “secret” stretch near Thermopolis, Wyoming), advice, and tips offered by this attractive and well-organized guidebook make it a great value for anyone interested in fishing the Bighorn. 

The row of white-aproned, white-capped waitresses in 1950s hairstyles and eyeglasses on the front cover of Historic Restaurants of Billings by Stella Fong (American Palate/History Press, $21.99) offers a good clue to the nostalgia and fun to be had inside this slim, illustrated volume on the culinary history of the Magic City. Fong recalls the glory days of the supper clubs, diners, and fine-dining establishments that sprang up, then thrived and survived over the decades, putting the stories of the bakeries, steak houses, burger joints, and Chinese restaurants in the context of Billings’ astonishing railroad-fueled growth. She traces the rise and fall of trends and different establishments, and celebrates the longevity and success of iconic places and names in the Billings’ food scene. Throughout the book are black-and-white photos of historic Billings, the restaurants, the menus, and the even the dining room dishes that complete an evocative portrait of mid-20th century Americana. The photo of the original slide that used to deliver patrons from the Stock Exchange to the Prairie disco a floor below in the 1970s, not to mention the story of that legendary club, completes the nostalgia tour. With a foreword by Montanan and James Beard Award-winning author Greg Patent, this is a book that Billings residents and visitors will smile over as it preserves their story for future generations. 

When legendary park ranger Jerry Mernin died in 2011, he left behind outlines, notes, and chapters of the book that captured his life story and his life’s work that is now being published, thanks to the effort of family and friends, as Yellowstone Ranger (Riverbend, $22.95). After growing up in Yosemite National Park, serving time in the Army, and attending law school, Mernin found his passion as a ranger in Yellowstone National Park, where he served for 32 years. His memoirs capture that passion — and they capture the story of both a remarkable place and a remarkable occupation. With the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service upon us in 2016, this straightforward, entertaining, and enlightening memoir of a career that spanned more than a quarter of that century adds a personal and very human element to the story and idea of service in the national parks. 

The little-known 1931 fire at Waldron Creek, 35 miles west of Choteau, Montana, gets its historical due in the new book by Charles Palmer, Montana’s Waldron Creek Fire: The 1931 Tragedy and the Forgotten Five (History Press, $21.99). Palmer, a former smokejumper who first learned of the fire and the deaths of the five men in 2003 through an article in the Choteau Acantha, takes a very personal approach in recounting the story of the fire, the tragedy, and its aftermath. His perspectives give immediacy to the harrowing experience of a firefight, and his experience as a longtime researcher on the subject of human behavior in disaster situations offers the long view. But what makes this book stand out from the crowd of forest fire titles is the author’s commitment to honoring the memories of the firefighters who lost their lives. His journey to honor their sacrifice, a journey that took more than a decade to complete, is — albeit occasionally a little strange — an inspirational reminder that lives should not be forgotten lightly. 

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