We’d swoop low at the sight of antelope for a fun chase across the mesas. I was itching to bag a pronghorn – anything with antlers, actually. I wanted to mount a pair on the knotty pine walls of my bedroom. There I would hang our bamboo fly-fishing rods, canvass creels and the fluorescent pink caps we wore in the field so hunters wouldn’t mistake us for game.
The Mountains and the Fathers rekindled sweet memories of my own father and I. The new book is a memoir by Joe Wilkins, a gifted writer 24 years my junior who grew up 85 miles north of my childhood home in Billings. This is the Big Dry, a drought-punished country in the vast plains of east central Montana.
Wilkins nails the sense of this place dead-on with poet’s eyes that see the landscape as “one part grass and two parts sky” and musician’s ears for the “grass that cracks beneath your steps.” The snap shirts, feed store ball caps, Rainier beer cans, antelope breakfast steaks, Chinook winds and the opaque plastic sheets covering windows in the winter evoked the romance of the interior West that I cherished as a boy.
However, unlike my short-lived Big Sky adventure (We moved to the Bay Area just as I turned 12, ruling out the shotgun), Wilkins’ nostalgia for the Big Dry is bittersweet. Writing in his early 30s, Wilkins reflects on his youth as a story of survival. His father died when he was 9, leaving his mother to raise him and two siblings on a 300-acre sheep and hay farm in a gritty dot of a community called Melstone. They survived on the whims of rainfall and a coal-fired furnace in a drafty house “cobbled together from the ruins of homesteader shacks.”
“You couldn’t call it a living. It was a kind of ritualized dying,” Wilkins writes.
More than a memoir, the book is an indictment of the ideology of rugged individualism so deeply rooted in the arid American West. The success-through-hard-work religion no doubt makes for rugged individuals. However, this book shows that it also turns individuals against their land and, ultimately, themselves.
Wilkins’ portrays a dismal array of childhood peers, including an overgrown bully named Rooster. Several are abandoned or abused by their parents or relatives. By his mid-teens, Wilkins joins his lot in drinking hard, driving fast and doping on nicotine. But he stops short of throwing punches and smoking marijuana. He has boundaries because he has hope.
That hope springs from his rancher grandfather who gifts him a vision for some better life beyond Melstone and from the stories told of his esteemed father whom Wilkins has subconsciously erased from memory. The author was also blessed with imagination, thanks to his college-educated mother, Olive, who gifts him a love for reading.
This book brings to mind novelist Wallace Stegner’s stories of those like his father who fell victim to the rain-follows-the-plow myth. (The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs.)
The Mountains and the Fathers is another poignant lesson in reconciling ourselves with our natural environment. Working the land in the Big Dry yields riches, but they are marginal and ephemeral.
Blaming failure not on the elements but on the character of the participants is a recipe for self-destruction. Working the land harder through overgrazing and other brute force only brings impoverishment to the land and its people.
“We need to remember how it really was and is out West, and we need to tell those true new stories,” Wilkins writes.
The Mountains and the Fathers is one of “true new stories,” well told.
Next month Chris Bowman reviews On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder.