Montana Book Reviews: Premium Page Turners
By DOUG MITCHELL
A jungle fighter pilot’s refreshingly real and personal look at the Vietnam War, a debut mystery novel featuring a fiery heroine and a thought-provoking ranch life memoir from the Madison Valley. Montana Magazine contributor Doug Mitchell reviews a handful of books based in or about Montana. Below, read an author Q&A with Badluck Way author Bryce Andrews.
Jungle Fighter Pilots
By Bernie Hale
PC Publishing, Kernersville, North Carolina, 2012
In his book Jungle Fighter Pilots, Missoula Sentinel High School (1963) and University of Montana (1967) graduate Bernie Hale shares an amazingly readable story about his personal experiences as a U.S. Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War. I opened the pages of this book expecting a challenging, somewhat dark memoir about one of America’s most difficult conflicts. What I found instead was a remarkably refreshing, straightforward book that reads more like a travelogue than a war story. That said, this is one unusual travelogue.
While Hale humbly describes his service as a compilation of day-to-day activities, it is impossible for the reader not to shake his or her head at the incredible courage and heroism displayed by Hale and his colleagues. If you are like me, when you think “Air Force pilot” you picture a sleek jet with high tech instruments flown by guys nicknamed “Iceman” and “Maverick.” The reality for Hale was a bit different. Hale and his fellow “jungle fighter pilots” flew single engine Cessnas with a top speed of somewhere around 90 miles per hour. With this, Hale and his fellow “Tums” led fighter missions day after day in enemy territory during the heat of the conflict.
I found the book to be charming and compelling. It’s not going to win any literary prizes, but I don’t think that was the author’s goal. His personal story of the Vietnam War he fought is told without political commentary or personal angst. It is a clear-eyed reflection on a unique time in military history and I’m glad I came across it.
By Gwen Florio
The Permanent Press, Sag Harbor, New York, 2013
This book had me at “hello.” The combination of a strong female heroine, its Montana setting, and the hold-on-to-your-seat pacing is, for me, a recipe for a long and enjoyable weekend of reading. I had the chance to run into the author, Gwen Florio, from time to time during her time as a reporter for the Missoulian and am not at all surprised by the quality of her writing in this book, which is her first novel.
Set in the north central part of the state, Montanais a novel that transports the reader into a Montana that can only be depicted by someone as familiar with the state as Florio. Add to this the author’s ability to use descriptive language to paint a literary picture and Florio has given us a real treasure.
An example of the quality of the writing is shown with this line about the heroine, Lola Wicks, experiencing her first Montana wildfire up close: “Lola’s lungs burned. She couldn’t see the fire anymore, but she heard it, the stiff swish of taffeta rubbing against itself. Smoke drifted in shreds, obscuring and then revealing the trail.” Great stuff.
In Montana we meet hard edged journalist Wicks who has reluctantly come to Montana to visit a fellow journalist, Mary Alice Carr. When Lola finds her friend dead of a gunshot wound, the game is on. But that’s all you will get from me. The rest is beyond my limited abilities to describe. Suffice it to say, this book is well worth adding to your summer reading list.
I have read a lot of mystery fiction and I think Florio has the chops to be a member of that elite group of authors. Her writing is strong, her characters rich and her ability to describe a sense of place is extraordinary.
By Bryce Andrews
Atria Books, New York, New York, 2013
One can hardly pick up a Montana newspaper without reading about the current policy debates about wolves, wildlife, ranching, land development, conservation and out-of-state land owners. The opinions on these issues are varied, valid and voiced with confidence and conviction.
In Badluck Way author and ranch hand Bryce Andrews moves the debate from policy to practice as he shares with us his year working on the Sun Ranch in the magnificent Madison Valley. In doing so, Andrews challenges us to see these debates differently because, as is often the case, the reality of a real-life decision is very different than an intellectual one.
But to describe Andrews’ book as a useful and interesting academics-meets-real-life story is to significantly diminish the accomplishments of this first book from a very gifted writer.
Badluck Way is a beautifully written book that had me marking page after page filled with quotes to which I wanted to be sure to return. I’ve been blessed to spend some time in the wild lands of Montana in general and in the Madison Valley in particular, and I found Andrews’ descriptions to be evocative of the Montana I know. For example, when he writes about waiting out a storm: “We let the fire die when the storm broke, and rode together toward the higher pastures and the barn. Every tree was dripping and the creeks had swollen. It occurred to me that I had achieved a rare thing: I was living at the center of my heart’s geography. And I knew it.”
Andrews also uses an interesting format throughout the book where he inserts a few italicized mini-chapters as seen through the eyes of the wolves that make their home on and near the ranch. In a sense, the wolves are as much or more a part of this story as Andrews himself. Again, the language he uses is beautiful as he envisions the wolves courting ritual this way: “They orbited each other, sniffing at tracks and keeping a safe distance. They courted across half a dozen drainages and bounced howls off the bottom of the moon.”
But Badluck Way is more than just a beautifully written book about the American West. The conflict the author has between his personal viewpoint and the realities of ranch life, particularly as they involve the iconic wolf, provides a raw tension that makes this very good book a truly great one.
Like any good work of nonfiction, Badluck Way raised more questions than it answered so I tracked down the author and asked him some of those questions.
MM: First, congratulations on a very successful first book. When did you realize your year on the Sun Ranch was a book in the making?
Bryce Andrews: I took notes while working on the Sun. Though I was immersed in the chaotic hustle of summer ranch work, and had little time or energy for creative pursuits, I was aware that I was living a rare story. From the beginning, I felt that it was important to record the story and landscape as best I could.
Still, most notes don’t see the light of day as a book, no matter what sort of story they record. Badluck Way really began to take shape while I was working on a graduate degree in the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program. In that program, with the guidance of good teachers like Phil Condon, I started to believe that my notes and essays could come together as a narrative.
MM: Badluck Way is beautifully written and you have a clear interest in and skillful hand with words, can you trace from where your interest in the written word originated?
BA: I love good stories, and the way that language caroms through the mind. A passion for words, meaning, and the connection that can arise between a speaker and his audience has been with me for a very long time. Early on, stories offered me a chance to be closer to people I cared about. Regardless of whether I was talking or listening, it felt good to share an experience with somebody. Although I was raised around visual art – my dad ran an art museum, and my mom is a photographer – I always felt like storytelling was the most intimate form of communication.
I also struggle to remember things, even important ones, unless I put them in print. The fear of losing my most important stories is what drives me to write them down.
MM: When people unfamiliar with your book ask you what it is about, what do you say?
BA: Sometimes I just say that the book is about wolves and cattle, but that’s certainly not the whole of it. At its heart, Badluck Way is about making a living on the ragged edge of man’s range. It is about the work of ranching, and how that work forces a person to participate in—rather than simply observe – the mortal drama of the natural world.
Badluck Way is about the beauty and brutality of truly wild places, and the fact that precious few such places remain. I hope the book makes people think about how we’re treating the land that sustain us all, and how we ought to occupy the big, arid, and increasingly crowded landscape of the contemporary West.
MM: The book is full of personal discovery and the many conundrums facing the increasing friction if you will between wildlife and man. If you had a magic wand, what would you do to create a more harmonious co-existence?
BA: Thanks for promoting me to the role of benevolent, omnipotent despot. If the goal is to live well and harmoniously with the natural world – which I think it should be – I’d start by waving my magic wand in the following two directions:
First, I’d strip away certain accumulated layers of myth and prejudice, and challenge people to see wild creatures for what they truly are. Wolves, for instance, live bloody lives. They are smart, social creatures, but they kill for a living. Where our world brushes against theirs, we should always expect some trouble, some loss, and some violence. We can work to minimize this friction, of course, but we should accept and embrace the difficult parts of coexisting with the wild.
Second, I’d compel every inhabitant of our region to think deeply about his or her relationship to wild, open space, and the importance of sharing that space – a word used here in the physical, emotional, and social senses – with wild animals. We talk a lot about open space and wilderness in the West. We legislate for or against it, bicker over it, but seldom stop to think about how deeply it defines us. I do not think I’m alone in drawing sanity, strength, and hope from wild things and wild places. Sanity, strength, and hope are the largesse of an intact landscape. I think it’s important to remember that when we lose a cow, or a sheep, or sleep because the pack is harrying the herd.
MM: In the first half or so of the book you write short pieces in italics from the wolf’s perspective, but they abruptly end when the shooting happens. Was that intentional?
BA: I suppose so. I had to go on living without the wolf after that day, and thought it was important for the reader to have a similar experience.
MM: At one point in the book you say that “Often I was tempted to construe ranching as nothing more than a protracted act of violence.” With a few years in the rear view mirror since your experience on the Sun Ranch, how has your opinion evolved as you continue conservation ranching on the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch?
BA: Ranching is the running sum between increase and destruction, and my years at Dry Cottonwood taught me how easily the different parts of that equation can slip in and out of focus. If I’m sure of anything, though, it’s the fact that nothing ruins the land for wildlife and livestock as quickly or finally as irresponsible development. Though I’m still relatively young, I’ve witnessed the fragmentation of many of my favorite places.
Ranchers make mistakes. Livestock, especially if poorly managed, can wreak havoc on native species and the natural world. However, so long as the land stays open and undeveloped, we have great cause for hope in the West.
In ranching, I see a rare and valuable way of making a living from the land without wholly destroying the order of natural world. Doing this in perpetuity is our great collective challenge, and our best hope for sustainable inhabitation of the American West.
MM: You share with us as readers that you spent the long winter hours on the ranch reading. What kind of books might we find in your personal bookshelf?
BA: My bookshelves are crammed, bowed, and poorly organized. On them, you’ll find texts like the following: Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac; Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines; Paul Shephard, Coming Home to the Pleistocene; Loren Eiseley, The Unexpected Universe; David Quammen, Monster of God; Hugh Brody, Maps and Dreams; Debra Magpie Earling, Perma Red; Charles Bowden, Blue Desert; and M.Wylie Blanchet, The Curve of Time.
MM: Last, I can’t help but ask about Number 512. You seem to have a particular connection with this heifer, what was it?
BA: I don’t know that I ever felt a close connection with 512, at least not the sort of bond I’ve developed with good horses or the occasional exceptional bull. But I did respect the sheer orneriness of that heifer. Down deep, I liked the fact that her desires were non-negotiable. I admired 512 for her intractability and because she stood out as an individual. She shattered my perception of the herd as a homogenous unit, and stood as living, charging, bawling proof that a cow was more than a walking stack of steaks.