by Joyce H. Brusin
Judy Blunt spent the first thirty years of her life an hour south of Malta, Montana, and a shorter ride north of the Missouri River Breaks. There, on cattle and wheat ranches that belonged first to her father and then to her husband, she fashioned a childhood and an adolescence, a marriage, and a family.
Her story lies in the details: how she began her days and ended her nights; the siblings and friends who attended one-room schools with her; her move to Malta to attend high school with her older brother. And how, as a fifteen-year-old, she first dated the twenty-seven-year-old bachelor who became her husband.
Here she recounts costly and tragic blizzards, spirited horses, yearling steers she learned to ride, and fires she longed to fight. Though she resisted many of its demands, Blunt carved a place for herself in this world. Into it she bore three children, the fourth generation of a Montana ranching family. Her legacy to them includes the fact that she eventually left the land on which she and they were born. Her legacy to the rest of us is the sense of awe with which she remembers the years she remained there:
“Spring happened overnight that year, and the coyotes couldn’t get enough of it. Calls shot up from shale banks and bloomed over the barnyard, sharp yaps and strings of eee’s that met the icy pulse of northern lights overhead. Walking to the calving shed for the three o’clock check, I had to remind myself and the chickenhearted bird dog bumping against my heels that they were farther away than they sounded. Everything seemed closer and sharper those first few weeks when snowdrifts drew back in clean lines and the land rose through. Even the breeze seemed urgent with the smell of wet prairie and new sage, the swollen rumble of the creek. Or maybe it was me.”
There are times, it is said, when the worlds of the living and the dead mingle. Times when we the living hear the thoughts, feel the touch, and know the presence of those who have lived before us. Such a confluence powers Debra Magpie Earling’s first novel.
Perma Red is the derogatory nickname given the young Louise White Elk, a woman who since her girlhood has sought power and escape in the reactions men have to her stunning looks and flaming hair. Louise lives with her sister and their grandmother in a cabin on Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation. It is the 1940s. Young Indian women are told outright to marry a white man and escape.
Three men occupy Louise’s thoughts. Baptiste Yellow Knife, a boy as stubborn and proud as Louise, possesses more unexplained powers than material goods; his disheveled appearance at the Ursuline school prompts the nuns to recall “John the Baptist” in the wilderness. He alone will marry Louise.
Charlie Kicking Woman, a tribal police officer, secretly loves Louise and considers himself to be her personal guardian. Not only is he caught between his regard for his wife and his love for Louise, he is caught between the white and Indian worlds he must serve, caught between the beauty of the native oral tradition he loves and the untold stories of poverty he witnesses daily on the reservation.
Harvey Stoner is a local white man who can buy what he cannot possess. Stoner takes Louise to a dance bar in Wallace, Idaho. “She loved the dark silky wood of the club. The bar shined with glasses and beautiful bottles of booze. The soft lights were crystal. There were no beer sausages or pickled eggs, no pigs’ feet, no peanut shells, no stench of ammonia and urine. ...When she looked at Harvey Stoner he was smoking a cigar. He lifted his glass of bourbon to her and for a crazy moment she thought she should duck. But he toasted her.”
One night she goes to a place where a loved one has died. “Winter had laced the trees along the riverline. Snow snaked the road. ... The closer you are to life, the closer you are to death, her grandmother had told her.” Earling based her novel on the life and tragic death of a long-lost aunt. On these pages, Louise White Elk, guarded by spirits of the living and the dead, is reborn from what had seemed to be certain destruction.
In Blood Double, computer company intrigue and cutting-edge genetic research collide on the doorstep of Dr. Carroll Monks, a San Francisco emergency room physician, who probes more than medical mysteries during his lengthy shifts. When a mysterious young drug addict appears in the ER one evening and turns out to be a billionaire computer wunderkind, Monks is forewarned that theft and murder may be found as easily in the city’s mega-affluent skyscrapers as in the alleys that unfurl from their guarded lobbies.
The crimes Monks investigates seem to emerge out of today’s headlines, but he understands they are rooted in much older human proclivities and needs. As his investigation draws out frightened and nearly silenced “whistle blowers,” Monks is reminded of the Catholic confessionals of his youth.
In an era when genetic research promises to crown corporate heads with enormous wealth and power, Monks must bet his life that those who have come to him confessing a change of heart won’t be violently cut down.
As he follows his instincts along the roadways and across the bridges of the northern California coast, Monks is reassured by the weather and landscape he sees around him: “Traffic was light. Monks settled into the warm comfort of the old truck, feeling the city around him in a way that was usually lost in tension and haste. San Francisco was one of the world’s most beautiful places, its Mediterranean profile, in clear weather, breathtakingly sharp against the blue Pacific sky. But Monks loved it like it was tonight, softened by the mist, lights blurred, outlines indistinct.” The promise of what the fog might conceal keeps Monks driving on.
Books in brief
Flames in Our Forest: Disaster or Renewal?
by Stephen F. Arno, Ph.D. ’70, and Steven Allison-Bunnell
Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002, 245 pp., $45 cloth, $19.95 paper
A collaboration between research forester Arno and science writer Allison-Bunnell has produced an engaging discussion of the role of fire in the maintenance of forests.
god won’t overlook us
Poems by Michael Poage, M.F.A. ’73
Lawrence, Kansas: Penthe Publishing, 2001, 63 pp., $12
Former UM Professor Madeline DeFrees describes these poems as “terrifyingly honest” and “full of surprises generated by the simplest of everyday occurrences.”
Organic Gardening in Cold Climates
by Sandra Perrin ’86
Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing, 2002, revised edition, 142 pp., $12
Perrin draws from thirty years of gardening experience in Montana to share her hard-won knowledge—from composting to winter storage—with recipes for harvested vegetables thrown in for good measure.
Robert’s Rules of Order, Simplified and Applied
by Robert McConnell, M.A. ’66
Gig Harbor, Washington: Robert McConnell Productions, 2001, 407 pp., $10.99
This tome is designed to help the reader apply the rules of parliamentary procedure as presented in Robert’s Rules of Order.
Yosemite: The Grace and Grandeur
by George Wuerthner ’82
Stillwater, Minnesota: Voyageur Press, 2002, 144 pp., $29.95
This pictorial tribute to Yosemite National Park presents the reader with a lush view of the park, including backcountry areas; the author’s captions provide background information on the park’s geology and natural history.
Wings Across the Desert
by David H. Ellis, Ph.D. ’73
Surrey, British Columbia, Canada: Hancock House, 2002, 181 pp., $17.95
This engaging account by a research zoologist documents a quest to determine if a flock of cranes could be trained to follow a truck on a long-distance migration and arrive wild enough to survive after release.
Whisk, Lyric, Logic
Poems by Shaun Gant, M.F.A. ’84
Helena: Touch of Light Press: Historic Montana Publishing, 2002, 42 pp., $14.95
Gant read these spirited, whimsically earthy poems in her garden to illustrator Sheila Miles, who created the accompanying art.
No Place Distant
by David G. Havlick, M.S. ’92
Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002, 297 pp., $40 cloth, $18.95 paper
This books presents an examination of the more than 550,000 miles of roads that crisscross our national lands, considering how they came to be; their ecological, financial, and societal costs; and what can be done to ensure that these roads are as environmentally benign and cost-effective as possible.
Editor’s Note: Our apologies for failing to include the graduating year of George Venn, M.F.A. ’70, in our last book section.