Montana Book Review: Literary Thrills and Chills
By Doug Mitchell
A dark new novel from one of Montana’s most well-known master of thrillers, a heartfelt history from the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, and a western-themed page-turner with a hearty heroine.
Montana Magazine contributor Doug Mitchell reviews a handful of books based in or about Montana.
Light of the World
By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013
One of America’s premier fiction writers, James Lee Burke sets his 20th Dave Robicheaux novel, Light of the World, near his ranch home just south of Missoula.
For those not familiar with Burke’s work, Dave Robicheaux, a deputy sheriff in New Iberia, La., is the main character in as good a set of mystery stories as you’ll ever find. A deeply flawed, but an intensely human man, Robicheaux is the kind of imperfect character in whom we as readers can easily believe.
In Light of the World, Robicheaux is vacationing in Montana with his family and his ever present sidekick, Clete Purcel, when strange things begin to happen.
This dark, hard tale isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is a first-class page turner that will keep you on the edge of your seat. More than that, it is a beautifully written book with the kind of memorable, elegant language that separates Burke from most of his peers in the fiction genre.
For long-time Burke fans, it is another great read.
First-time readers: Be prepared to get hooked and to develop an oddly strong opinion about whether your favorite character is Dave Robicheaux or Clete Purcel.
A Cheyenne Voice – The Complete John Stands in Timber Interviews
By John Stands in Timber and Margot Liberty
University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 2013
More than a half century in the making, A Cheyenne Voice – The Complete John Stands in Timber Interviews represents a significant contribution to the history and culture of the American West. In this dense and rich volume, author Margot Liberty presents a full transcription of the recorded interviews she did with Stands in Timber in the 1950s. The interviews were the basis of her 1967 book Cheyenne Memories. In the book, Liberty provides a rare and intimate window to an all too often forgotten past.
Born in 1882, John Stands in Timber sat for these interviews late in his life.
And what a life it was. An orphan, Stands in Timber was sent to a boarding school but returned to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation at the age of 23, where he became a dedicated tribal historian, story collector and protector of the native language.
There is no way not to be moved by this book. Although at times a difficult read because it is a direct transcription, the stories and history shared by Stands in Timber, as elicited through the capable questioning of Liberty, take the reader to a very special place. It is the kind of book you will want to keep by your bedside table and read in reflective moments because the stories are so warm and significant that they demand the attention of a treasured moment.
By K.C. McRae
Midnight Ink, Minnesota, 2013
I was prepared not to expect much of Shotgun Moon when it got to the top of the pile of books by my nightstand. I had not heard of the author and was not familiar with the publisher, but I liked the premise of a female heroine in a western novel and figured I would give it a whirl.
I’m glad I did.
Shotgun Moon is a breath of fresh air from a talented writer who, I later learned, has an accomplished career writing under other names. This is her first novel writing as K.C. McRae.
On the first page of the book we are introduced to our heroine, Merry McCoy, recently released from prison and headed back to her home in the fictional rural Montanan town of Hazel.
Merry is as refreshing and original of a character as I have come across in a long time. From the moment she returns home we are on a 300-page thrill ride that is filled with amazing characters.
I had the chance to ask McRae some questions about Shotgun Moon.
Here’s what she had to say about the book and her work.
Q: You are already a successful author through your two series Magical Bakery Mysteries (writing under the name of Bailey Cates) and Home Crafting Mysteries (Cricket McRae), what made you decide to take a chance with Shotgun Moon.
A: I’ve always been drawn to western writers and to stories that depict the unique sensibilities of western life. As much as I enjoy the work of authors like Doig, Duncan, Kittredge or McGuane, I’m a mystery writer at heart and am also a big fan of James Lee Burke, Dana Stabenow, Craig Johnson and C.J. Box. The idea for Shotgun Moon had been percolating for years, and when I found myself with an opening in my writing schedule I decided it was time to bring it to life. It certainly is a departure from my two cozy mystery series, which is one of the reasons it was so enormously fun to write. Cozy mysteries are typically lighter fare with little actual violence, sex or even bad language. In the world of Shotgun Moon the story couldn’t be told that way, and I loved the opportunity to write a little darker.
Q: Merry McCoy is quite a character. Where did she come from?
A: I have had the luck to know many women who meet adversity – both the everyday stumbling blocks and life-altering enormities – with quiet strength. They take a deep breath and do what needs to be done, from putting down a horse to changing a bed pan, from protecting their children to living in constant pain. These women taught me how gentle strength can be and how brutal as well. They showed me, and continue to show me, that it’s possible to get through life without letting it wear you away, that success can simply mean retaining the ability to be compassionate in the middle of it all while not giving into bitterness or self-pity. The journey to reach that equanimity is rarely pretty or smooth, but it’s worth it. Some of these people are friends and others are members of my family. These women all inspired my flawed but persistent main character. One of them was my great-grandmother, Essie McCoy, whose name I borrowed for Merry.
Q: You have a new Bailey Cates book coming out, Some Enchanted Éclair, in July. Tell us a bit about the transition as a writer from writing a book like Shotgun Moon, then moving back to a Magical Bakery Mystery.
A: Some Enchanted Eclair is my 11th novel, and the fourth Magical Bakery Mystery. In some ways it’s the polar opposite of Shotgun Moon – set in the Deep South, featuring a young witch who owns a bakery. The tone is lighter, and there’s an emphasis on food – especially savory pastries. In some ways that makes it easier to write than something like Shotgun, simply because the story is not as layered. However, the mystery still needs to work in an interesting and coherent way, and Katie Lightfoot, the witch in question, is actually an old fashioned herbal healer whose father is descended from Shawnee medicine men. Like Merry, she’s resourceful, cares about her friends and family, and takes care of business. I’ve found that the luxury of being able to switch from one kind of mystery writing to another keeps things fresh and interesting.
Q: Why did you choose Montana as the location for Shotgun Moon?
A: Both of my parents were born in Montana. My dad worked at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, and I have family in Billings. I grew up mostly in northern Wyoming and Colorado. Then, when I lived in Seattle I visited the Bitterroot Valley and fell in love with the place. For years I wanted to live there, and one day that still might happen. In the meantime, Shotgun Moon gave me the opportunity to partially live my fantasy on the page.
Q: Will fans of Shotgun Moon we see more from K.C. McRae and if so, can you give us a sneak peek?
A: I have several projects in the works, among them a couple more K.C. McRae adventures. One is set in a primitive living school and another in a cult-like compound in the Yaak Valley. However, neither is presently under contract, so my priority in the next six months will be on my current obligations.
To another book review by Doug Mitchell, click here.
Mysterious story of Copper King’s daughter makes for one good book
It’s always funny how closely connected we are here in Montana. What’s the saying? In Montana, it’s not seven degrees of separation, but three?
It’s something like that.
Montana Magazine book reviewer Doug Mitchell found some surprising connections to the Huguette Clark’s story, detailed in the new book “Empty Mansions” by Bill Dedman. It really is a fascinating story about Huguette and her highly unusual lifestyle. She spent decades in a New York City hospital room while various, sweeping mansions sat empty. She was the daughter of infamous Copper King W.A. Clark, who made his fortune in Butte.
Doug, from Helena, found that during his travels with his wife, he’d been close to many of the mansions. We weren’t able to print Doug’s entire story inside the Jan/Feb issue, but you can read the full edition online at MontanaMagazine.com.
We’ve also posted the extended version of Doug’s chat with Bill Dedman. Among a ton of other great behind-the-scenes details, Dedman told Mitchell that he drew much of the story from 20,000 pages of correspondence Huguette wrote and 20 years of nurses notes. It’s always fascinating to hear more about how an author finds, crafts and presents their story.
Empty Mansions book has important story to tell
In this extended version of the Montana Magazine story about the New York Times best selling novel “Empty Mansions,” Montana Magazine book reviewer Doug Mitchell tells the story of his connection to the mysterious story of Huguette Clark.
He also asked author Bill Dedman a set of questions about the fascinating book.BY DOUG MITCHELL
It really is quite incredible how a book can gather together the separate strings of our daily lives and tie them into a nice, neat bow. Empty Mansions did that for me from nearly the moment I opened its pages and began the tale of Huguette Clark, her family and her life. In just the past few months, my wife Julie and I have taken some time to travel. We have visited family in Kalispell, flown to see our two boys in the San Francisco Bay Area and taken a journey back in time to our earliest married days 30 years ago to Washington, DC. Without knowing it at the time, with each journey we picked up a string from Huguette Clark’s own journey.
On a rainy day in September we stood inside the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and watched a video on the restoration of the museum’s Salon Dore’, captivated by the care given this treasure and blissfully unaware that a nearly identical room existed in the Clark Mansion in New York City over a century ago. Likewise, as we strolled hand-in-hand in the failing light of Washington, D.C. on a beautiful fall night watching the monuments and museums come to light, we walked directly past the Corcoran Museum, to which Senator Clark donated hundreds of paintings, sculptures and antiquities upon his death in 1925. Last, but most embarrassing to me, was our trip from Helena to Kalispell where we drove by and appreciate the historic Legendary Lodge at Salmon Lake, for what must be the 500th time in our marriage, never knowing until I read this amazing book the connection between this landmark of our family travel and the family of Huguette Clark.
Published in late 2013, Empty Mansions is the result of the combination of the random personal discovery and dogged journalistic curiosity of writer Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigating journalist. Dedman began reporting on his emerging discoveries about the mysterious Huguette Clark for NBC News and those of us in Montana saw glimpses of the emerging controversy about the reclusive daughter of the late copper magnate and controversial United States Senator W.A. Clark in local newspaper mentions that trickled back to Montana beginning about three years ago.
The story seems implausible at first glance; a 100 year-old heiress with hundreds of millions of dollars, voluntarily lives in a spartan hospital room in New York while her grand homes across the country sit vacant. A captivating story no doubt and one that became for Dedman and NBC News the most popular feature in the history of its on-line news service.
However, a popular set of on-line articles does not automatically translate into a meaningful book. In this case it did. Empty Mansions is much more though than a compilation of Dedman’s NBC News stories. A meticulously researched book, Empty Mansions in Dedman’s skilled hands goes back to the beginning to tell the current day tale of Huguette Clark. Dedman creates an important, compelling and easy to read narrative that begins with a young W.A. Clark getting his start as an entrepreneur in Colorado during the early 1860’s. Think about the scope of this book for a moment. Between the stories of just father (W.A.) and daughter (Huguette), we have a tale that spans from the Civil War to 2011. The breadth of such a story could be overwhelming, but in Dedman’s deft hands it flows easily and logically with a journalist’s eye toward accuracy and leaving judgments and conclusions to the reader.
In this effort, Dedman had help. During his work on the story, Dedman became acquainted with one of Huguette Clark’s cousins, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. Newell had been in contact with his aunt over the years and throughout the book one is treated to small inserts called “In Conversation with Huguette” where Newell provides often verbatim transcripts of his conversations with his cousin Huguette.
This is not an epic history book in the style of Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, but it is an important, well written book that has a story to tell, a lesson to teach and a history to unveil.
I had the chance to ask the author some questions about his remarkable book. Here’s our conversation.
Montana Magazine: Your book is filled with incredible and beautifully told stories about Mrs. Clark. When you are asked to pick one, what is your “go to” cocktail party tale?
Bill Dedman: Thank you. Paul Newell and I are ecstatic over the warm reaction that “Empty Mansions” has received. At a cocktail party I might tell, not one of the stories that shows Huguette’s eccentricity, but one of her relentless generosity. For a shy artist, a recluse, playing with her dolls and castles, it’s surprising how focused she was os charity to friends and strangers. I think of the home health aide, Gwendolyn Jenkins, who never met Huguette but who had taken care of someone Huguette knew. Gwendolyn was surprised at home by a lawyer bearing a beautiful card. As she told me, “I was telling my daughter that night, I couldn’t believe how this woman, an older woman she was, had written such a nice card, a proper note. … And she included a ‘little gift,’ she said, a check for three hundred dollars! I couldn’t believe it. I was going to tell them all about it at Bible study. I’ve been blessed! And my daughter, she said, ‘You’d better sit down, Mother, and let me read this letter over to you. This check is for thirty thousand dollars!’” Huguette lived a life of many charities, down to having an account at the corner grocery in Normandy so she could send treats to her friends. The book raises many questions for the reader to ponder, but a central one is, if I were born with the same advantages and disabilities, would I have lived the same way that Huguette did. Few of us would make the same choices she did — it’s easy to see that we would travel more, would have a beautiful view, would wear the jewels and fine clothes. But would we also be as generous as she was?
Montana Magazine: The diversity and depth of the story must have been a challenge. How did you accomplish writing in a range that included the founding of the Paganini Quartet, arcane but important Montana electoral history and the Smurfs?
Dedman: Our method in reporting was to explore every cul-de-sac and to enjoy where it led us. Huguette and her family were being revealed to us, too, in those details. Just to take a few paragraphs: The story of the magnificent pipe organ in the old Clark Mansion on Fifth Avenue — I was surprised by its purchase for $120,000 in 1910 dollars, and then by its ultimate sale for the price of a single good cigar. We learned surprising information about Mark Twain. Like W.A. Clark’s political career, it was all a series of surprises.
In the writing, we chose to tell it straight, to emphasize clarity and not literary fireworks. And most of all, not to speculate. We didn’t put any thoughts into anyone’s heads, we didn’t psychoanalyze. We give the readers more than enough clues — drawing facts from 20,000 pages of Huguette’s correspondence, twenty years of nurses’ notes, and the testimony of more than fifty witnesses — for the readers to think through the possibilities themselves. The readers’ speculations are likely to be as good as ours. We let the readers make up their own minds about the motives and ethics and feelings of Sen. Clark, of his young wife and daughters, of the relatives seeking Huguette’s fortune, of the hospital and the $31 million nurse. It seems that readers appreciated us sticking to non-fiction and letting them do the imagining.
Montana Magazine: If you had been given the opportunity to meet with Mrs. Clark, what would you have asked her?
Dedman: First I would have asked why she was not comfortable going out of the house or dealing with strangers — click, I can hear our conversation ending now. Paul, who is Huguette’s cousin, was able to speak with her, and they had dozens of chats over nearly ten years. Paul was careful and wise enough not to quiz her or interview her — although he had approached her by making clear that he was writing a family history, they were cousins chatting. Although she was so comfortable and chatty on the phone, Paul sensed that she would not have reacted well to being interviewed. If he had pushed her, she might well not have called him again. Remember, he didn’t have her number. He would call her attorney, and Huguette would call him back. He had no idea she was living in a hospital for twenty years.
Still, their conversations show her capabilities and gentle strength. Not only are portions of those talks excerpted in the book, but in the audiobook (from iTunes or Audible) you can hear her voice in sections of their recorded conversations. She sounds so clear and lucid. She remembers having unused tickets on the Titanic’s return trip in 1912, and she recalls the name of the hotel where she stayed at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu in 1915.
If I had talked with her, I’m sure I would have blown the opportunity by trying to get her to talk about what it was like to move from Paris to New York at age four, moving into the biggest house in the city, with 121 rooms for a family of four. What was life like with all those maids and servants, and a father that traveled so much, and a mother who was quiet and private? What was it like having the home flung open for charity parties and for gawkers to tour the five art galleries of the Clark mansion? I also would like to hear her view on relationships — here was a woman who was reclusive, shy, yet she maintained friendships that lasted decades, including with her ex-husband and with a boyfriend in France. What was her view of human contact and relationships, of the nourishment necesssary for a full life? She certainly got that through letters and phone calls, but was too uncomfortable, except with a few people, to have those relationships in person.
Montana Magazine: Not long after your book was published a settlement was reached regarding Mrs. Clark’s estate. In your view, what do you think Mrs. Clark would have thought of both the process and the outcome?
Dedman: Based on her actions and fierce protection of her privacy, it seems she would have been upset that her nurse, Hadassah Peri, was put through the publicity, and that her last will was being questioned, that her relatives were claiming she was mentally ill and defrauded. Solace may have come from the fact that the settlement, in the end, left the largest bequest to an arts foundation at her oceanfront estate, called Bellosguardo, in Santa Barbara, California, just as directed by the will she signed. Perhaps one day we can all tour that home, which she so lovingly preserved in her mother’s memory. More than $25 million was squandered, however, on legal fees, and Huguette was proven right — she had told her best friend that her relatives were out to get her money. Right now litigation is continuing as her family and estate are suing the hospital and her doctor — it’s hard to imagine that the prospect of her doctor being sued, so her distant relatives could benefit, was not something Huguette would have endorsed.
Montana Magazine: Late in the book you compare what some thought were Mrs. Clark’s eccentricities to someone who “can name the shortstop for the Boston Red Sox in 1967.” Is that reference autobiographical?
Dedman: My game is baseball, and that’s the sort of fact that baseball fans enjoy recalling. (The answer is Rico Petrocelli, who that year made the All-Star game and hit two home runs in the World Series, so he’s not even that obscure.) We know people who don’t quite recall the names of their children’s friends but can name the backup tight end for a football team. Our larger point, of course, was that having an eccentric hobby or passion or obsession — stamp collecting, trivia, Beatles memorabilia — is not a mental illness, no matter how foreign it seems to outsiders. Huguette’s life, including the doll collecting, makes good sense when viewed from close up.
Montana Magazine: Your book has received wide, and in my view, well deserved acclaim. What’s next for you and for us as readers?
Dedman: You’re very kind. The paperback version will be out in the spring with updates on the legal settlement and a discusison guide for book clubs. We’ll also be releasing more photos at that time. There also seems a good chance that someday you’ll get to see Huguette Clark and her family in a film on the big screen. As for other projects, I’m working on stories for NBC News. I suspect that Paul and I will write other books, but it would be good for work and family life to settle back into normalcy first. Writing a book of this length and detail in two years is an uphill sprint, but I’ll bet, like the pain of childbirth, it wears off soon enough and one starts to think, wouldn’t it be fun to have another little one.
Montana Magazine: One last question, you started your quest when you and your wife were looking for a house AND YOU SPOTTED HER EMPTY MANSION FOR SALE IN CONNECTICUT FOR $24 MILLION. We never heard how that came out? Did you find one?
Dedman: Yes, our family found a modest house, though not in Madame Clark’s price range. Somehow we’ve been able to manage without fifty-two acres and a room strictly for drying the draperies. Her home in Connecticut, however, remains for sale, and it’s a steal, now priced at $15 million, so feel free to call the Realtor.
Talk about a Dream: Book raises money for Whitehall’s Star Theatre
Most first novels are short, tentative works. Not this one.
Talk About a Dream is a 613 page tour de force written night after night from a recliner in Whitehall by a former smalltown newspaper owner.
The book was designed not for publication, but as a story for his kids. You see, author Glenn Marx and his wife, Terri, had just become empty nesters. They had sold the Whitehall Ledger and Glenn wanted to find a way to communicate with his adult children.
Like any good father might do, he decided to tell them a story. And it’s quite a story.
First, a brief disclaimer: Glenn is a friend of mine. He is kind, thoughtful and shockingly smart. These facts made this particular reviewing assignment both tricky and risky. I am generally quite skeptical of self-published books, and of books written by friends. I was worried that I would have to find polite words to say the book was “interesting” and “well intended” – code for not very good.
Within pages of starting Talk About a Dream, I knew my worries were unfounded.
Now, I can add to the things I think about Glenn. He is a very gifted writer and much funnier than I had known.
Talk About a Dream is, on its surface, a fictional account of a year in the life of small town Whitehall. It’s told through the eyes of Lance Joslyn, a local newspaper publisher (sound familiar?). The book is set around a magical football season and a mystical character named Jerry “Jersey” Conte who appears seemingly out of nowhere and becomes the head football coach and much more.
Talk About a Dream is one of those books you want to savor. Glenn has crafted a set of characters so rich and familiar that reading the book feels like an intimate act of being inside the story. I found myself rationing my reading to make the story last longer, an admittedly odd reaction to a book that is epic in its length (and weight).
Therein lay the genius of the author who somehow has taken a story meant for his adult son and daughter and turned it into a tale for all of us.
On top of that, Talk About a Dream is being used to help a worthy cause.
Whitehall’s Star Theatre is one of the places that provides a home to some of the book’s scenes and without the local effort to “Save the Star” we may never have been gifted the opportunity to read Talk About a Dream.
Glenn agreed to allow for the publication of his work only if all proceeds went to the benefit the historic Star Theatre. Glenn told me over lunch he thought his book “had a good heart.”
It does and so does he.
Doug Mitchell is a frequent Montana Magazine contributor. He writes from Helena.