A Montana writer deploys his gift for dialogue
As many readers of Montana history already know, the fascinating Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish adventurer and patriot who led the Irish Brigade for the Union during the American Civil War, is presumed to have drowned in Montana. He’s believed to have fallen off a steamboat at Fort Benton the evening of July 1, 1867, while serving as territorial governor.
But not so – he’s one of the survivors in this 2015 collection of stories by Montana writer Matt Pavelich, and he’s here given a second chance at life in order to tell his own story; how he flung himself overboard with a couple of pistols for weights, fully intending to drown, but found his instincts for survival kicking in when he found an empty cask floating next to him. “I sent my Colts one-by-one to the bottom. I continued. I am. One survives and survives, and every survival exacts its price. My God, I am hard to extinguish,” he meditates as Pavelich’s narrator in one of these stories, “Himself, Adrift.”
That might be the theme for this entire collection of stories about people caught in other kinds of streams besides the big current of the Missouri; just getting along in various ways with circumstances beyond their control.
Meagher – for whom Meagher County is named, slightly to the east and north of Helena – has already drawn the attention of some fine writers from time to time, including Joseph Kinsey Howard in his classic Montana High, Wide and Handsome. Meagher is also the focus of National Book Award-winner Timothy Egan’s latest work, The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero. It was due for release in March 2016. But give Pavelich credit for recognizing Meagher as a good subject for fiction in this piece that reads like a foray into magical realism.
Eventually befriended by an Indian woman whose nose has been mutilated, the Meagher in this story subsists on fare such as sage grouse roasted over greasewood fires and prairie turnips. He recalls and recites Ovid’s poetry and Plutarch’s Lives. He intones the mass, blasphemously. And along the way, he’s one of the showpieces for one of Pavelich’s best gifts as a storyteller – a deft hand with dialogue that fits each character like a garment tailored for him or her, as the case may be.
About the Irish, Pavelich’s adventurer says, magnificently, “We are a noble race … The finest motives are in almost everything we do.”
Almost? What a lot of latitude there is in that one word. You can almost hear Pavelich, or maybe Meagher, wink.
There’s something sure to please everyone in one or another of Matt Pavelich’s stories. The dialogue, particularly, is spot on for many of the characters. (“This gear box is a little broke; I miss second a lot,” a Montanan jockeying a truck up a mountain says.)
Particularly good, oddly enough, is the voice of the narrator in “Summer Family,” a story about two teenage girls that is told by one of them. For a man to write about a friendship between two adolescent females and do it well is quite a feat – what might spring to mind for some readers is the great Norwegian novelist Tarjei Vesaas in a great piece of work, The Ice Palace.
But Pavelich, too, does it well in a story that has the narrator, riding in a truck beside her uncle out to the farm on the Hi-Line, coming to terms with the bigness of Montana:
“You’re way above the road in that thing, up in the cab of his truck, and it is fun for a while, for a little ways, but then there gets to be a lot more of this state than there really needs to be, and you just keep going. You get off the bus, and then you get in that truck, and you drive, and you drive, and you drive, and you’ve already been over the mountains, but it’s hundreds of miles left to go, and you’re riding with Uncle Carl who tells you jokes he got from Reader’s Digest, and you try to laugh, but after a while it’s really hard, and he’s talking about his farm, his family, and it’s cute how much he likes ‘em, but we’re driving and driving, and the farther we go the less there is to look at, and you’re on and on, until you’re out there where the only thing there is in any direction is wheat fields and silos, and you can see for a hundred miles.”
Poor girl; she seems bored, even when she makes us want to be out there riding the Hi-Line. She should have brought a book along. This one by Pavelich would do the trick.
Pavelich, who lives now in Hot Springs, Montana, was born in St. Ignatius, Montana. He attended the University of Montana, the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Northwest School of Law. His short story collection, Beasts of the Forest, Beasts of the Field, published by Owl Creek Press in 1990, won the Montana Arts Council’s First Book Award. He also wrote the novels Our Savage, published by Shoemaker & Hoard in 2004, and The Other Shoe, published by Counterpoint in 2012.
Drumlummon Institute, the Helena-based publisher of this collection, is named for the fabulously wealthy Drumlummon Mine, which produced at least $30 million in bullion, the institute says on its website. Now, Drumlummon Institute says, it is “seeking quite different forms of wealth – cultural riches of infinitely various sorts – among Montana’s hills and broad river valleys, towering mountains and endless prairies.”
That’s important work. Montana and readers in other places will be the richer for it.
Reading Matt Pavelich’s stories is a ride across Montana …
What we’re reading these days is a collection of stories by writer Matt Pavelich, who was born in St. Ignatius, Montana, but lives now in Hot Springs, Montana. Drumlummon Institute of Helena published Pavelich’s short story collection, Survivors Said, in 2015.
It’s worth a look. One of Pavelich’s gifts is a good sense of dialogue and a voice that changes in keeping with his characters. Particularly impressive is a short story called “Summer Family.” It’s about two teen girls and the narrator is one of them. Getting their voices right has to be quite a feat for a man. The Norwegian novelist Tarjei Vesaas pulled it off once in a great piece of work called The Ice Palace, but it can’t be easy.
But Pavelich does it well. Check out the narrator’s description of driving out to a Montana farm with her uncle:
“You’re way above the road in that thing, up in the cab of his truck, and it is fun for a while, for a little ways, but then there gets to be a lot more of this state than there really needs to be, and you just keep going. You get off the bus, and then you get in that truck, and you drive, and you drive, and you drive, and you’ve already been over the mountains, but it’s hundreds of miles left to go, and you’re riding with Uncle Carl who tells you jokes he got from Reader’s Digest, and you try to laugh, but after a while it’s really hard, and he’s talking about his farm, his family, and It’s cut how much he likes ‘em, but we’re driving and driving, and the farther we go the less there is to look at, and you’re on and on, until you’re out there where the only thing there is in any direction is wheat fields and silos, and you can see for a hundred miles.”
A good read.
Montana reads galore: Our new ‘Montana Books’ page
We love telling our readers about good Montana books to read. And we’re lucky enough to have a pretty great book reviewer in Doug Mitchell, who always has a great list of good reads to share.
He’s told us about the now infamous copper king heiress.
And got us the inside scoop on why writers like “Fourth of July” author Smith Henderson choose to set their books in Montana.
Most recently, Mitchell reviewed books by Montana favorites Ivan Doig and newcomer Liz Carlisle.
Read all of Doug’s reviews and author Q&As here.
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MT Mag book reviews: Premium page turners
There’s probably not a lot of people who read more than Montana Magazine’s ace book reviewer Doug Mitchell, who writes the Montana book features for each issue.
But if you’re looking for some good readin’ here’s Doug’s reviews for our May/June issue.
Make sure you scroll all the way to the bottom so you can read a really great Q&A with Badluck Way author Bryce Andrews. Doug asks Andrews about his motivations to write the books, and about Andrew’s conflicting feelings about the role of ranching and the role of wolves across Montana’s farmlands.
As Doug writes:
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.
You can read more of Doug’s reviews here.