It feels like forever since I’ve been able to travel and it looks like that’s not going to change for a few months yet, so I’ve decided to travel by book this week. My chosen destination is an American State that I’ve only ever been to the southern border of, Montana.
Montana is one of those States that, as a Brit, I find it hard to get my mind around because it’s so different from where I live.
It’s the fourth-largest US State but its population is just over a million people (less than the population of Birmingham – the UK’s second-largest city). Montana has twice as much land as the UK and one-tenth of the population density – imagine a place with only 2.65 people per square kilometre – that’s so empty by UK standards. And it’s not empty because the people are huddled in cities. Unlike the UK where only 11% of us live in rural areas, in Montana, 75% of people live out in the country.
Montana also has a mix of old and new that I wouldn’t find in the UK. Its mountains, lakes and forests are almost untouched. It’s a new State, less than 130 years old. Most of Its population growth happened after 1930 yet its age distribution is odd with 25% of the population over 65 and a forecast that, by 2030, Montana will have more people over 65 than under 18. Montana has the largest Native American population in the US (66,000 people) and 63% of them choose to live in urban areas.
So, a big, beautiful, empty space, with only a few generations of white people, a quarter of whom are old and most of whom choose to live in rural areas. Based just on the numbers, tt would be hard to find an English speaking area more different from the UK.
But numbers only set the scene, they don’t tell the story. I’m curious to know what it would be like to live in this State that is so different from my home. I’ve chosen three books to help me find out. One is the story of an old cowboy struggling to adjust to changing times. One is about an old woman lost in the wilderness and the woman trying to find her. One is about life in a very small town.
I’m hoping to get a strong sense of place, some entertaining stories and some knowledge of how life is lived where people are few and far between.
‘As Goos As Gone’ by Larry Watson (2016)
A number of things pull me towards ‘As Good As Gone’.
I like the combination of grandfather and grandchildren, where neither of them is likely to have an understanding of the world that is shared by the people who set the rules.
Being in my sixties myself, I’m aware of how easy it is to lose touch with what others would take for granted, especially if you’ve always lived mostly inside your own head. You feel like you haven’t changed but the people around you have grown weirder and weirder.
Then there’s the whole ‘cowboy code’ and ‘cowboy up’ thing and the gun thing. These are very alien to me.
Finally, I like the idea of this being set in the 1960s. It gives the author and the reader a little distance from the day-to-day.
‘Kingdomtide ‘ by Rye Curtis (2020)
Debut novels are always a roll of the dice. What made me buy this one (apart from an eye-catching cover) was this quote from Cloirs Waldrip, the seventy-two-year-old woman from Texas who finds herself alone in the wilds of the Bitterroot Range in Montana after surviving a plane crash:
People are people, and I do not believe there is much more to be said on the matter. Twenty years ago I might have been of a different mind about that, but I was a different Cloris Waldrip back then. I might have gone on being that same Cloris Waldrip, the one I had been for seventy-two years, had I not fallen out of the sky in that little airplane on Sunday, August 31, 1986. It does amaze that a woman can reach the tail end of her life and find that she hardly knows herself at all
I like the idea of people reconsidering their lives when under duress. I also liked that the book has a second strong woman looking for a new start, Debra Lewis, ‘a park ranger, who is drinking her way out of the aftermath of a messy divorce is the only one who believes the old lady may still be alive.’
‘Kingdomtide’ is on the 2021 Dylan Thomas Prize Shortlist.
The prize is awarded by Swansea University.
Here’s what novelist Joshua Ferris, one of the judges, says about ‘Kingdomtide’:
“Kingdomtide is a propulsively readable and frequently very funny book about the resources, personal and natural, necessary to survive a patently absurd world. The winning voice of Texas-native Cloris Waldrip artfully takes us through her eighty-eight-day ordeal in the wilds of Montana as the inimitable drunk and park ranger Debra Lewis searches for her. This fine novel combines the perfect modern yarn with something transcendent, lyrical and wise.”
I’m hoping that I’ve found a great book and a new author to follow.
‘The Flood Girls’ by Richard Fifield (2016)
I’m not sure what to expect from ‘The Flood Girls’. Reviewers seem to like it but I’ve seen it criticised as being too dark towards the end by one reviewer and too relentlessly optimistic by another. Perhaps this shows that you have to write the book you want to write, regardless of what people make of it.
I’ve never lived in somewhere as small as Quinn, Montana, population 956, but I spent long enough living in a village with a few thousand people in it to watch kids grow up and old folks die off and couples form or break up, even though I didn’t know their names. There’s no such thing as anonymity in a village. That can be nice and supportive and it can be oppressively public.
I’m hoping that Richard Fifield knows small-town life well enough to show both sides of the experience. I’m up for a bit of humour and some larger than life characters but I want to go beyond a ‘Lake Wobegone’ folklore approach and meet the real people. The ones with the long memories, who know how to hold a grudge as well as the ones who live a more flamboyant life.