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.