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.
#TBT: Readers share their Pictured in History photos
It’s always fun to take a look back into Montana’s history through photos from the past.
Throwback Thursday gives us a good excuse to highlight a section inside each issue of Montana Magazine called Pictured in History, where photos from our readers’ archives are featured.
Below is the set we’ve run so far in 2015.
- Do you have historical photos you can share? Email the images, with a brief description and full information about anyone pictured, to email@example.com
Jan/Feb: “A Montana Man’s Catch”
March/April: “Celebration Preparation”
May/June 2015: “Smokejumping Roofers”
July/August 2015: “The Good Ol Days”
Montana history buffs, this list is for you
We’ve only started scratching the surface this week during our celebration of Montana’s history in the 150 years since it became a territory.
There’s plenty more to learn. Once again, writer Jesse Zentz (have you checked out his story in our May/June issue yet?) has an awesome list of sources where you can find out more about Montana.
It begins with the wonderful Montana Historical Society:
Montana Historical Society
Founded only a year after Montana became a territory, the Montana Historical Society is an unrivaled historical resource. Located in Helena, the Montana Historical Society Museum is home to an incredible collection of fine art and historical artifacts. You can visit the museum throughout the year. Learn more online at www.MontanaHistoricalSociety.org.
At www.HumantiesMontana.com, you can find information about events happening throughout the state, learn about a variety of grants and resources available, and much more.
Your local library
Montana’s libraries are full of amazing collections about Montana history, and thanks to a great online resource at www.MyMontanaLibrary.com, finding your local library is only a couple mouse clicks away. Most of the books mentioned above are available, along with many others.
Take a road trip or a walk around town
Located throughout Montana along some of the busiest highways and the lonely ones, too, the Montana Department of Transportation’s roadside signs offer some great historical tidbits about geological happenings in the state’s history. You can visit http://www.mdt.mt.gov/travinfo/geomarkers.shtml to find the signs.
Pictured in History: Montana of the early years
We love featuring historic photos of the faces and places of Montana inside the pages of the print editions. Most come for our readers, who share sentimental and rare images of their families and friends that have been passed down through generations. They’re special pieces of the state’s history.
We’ve compiled a few of the “Pictured in History” shots here to help continue to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Montana Territory. Many of the photos here are taken in the 1930s to the 1940s.
As we found when researching the story of the 150th anniversary of the Montana Territory, there weren’t many cameras or photographers present in the west during the 1860s. Portraits were much more common than candid shots or scenic shots. With the help of the Montana Historical Society we were able to run some shots of early territory towns, such as Virginia City.
Inside our May/June issue, we also have a portrait of Calamity Jane.
Turns out that Calamity Jane may have had a long history in Montana. This is from writer Jesse Zentz:
Known mostly for her time spent with Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, S.D., Egan said he found newspaper evidence in the Montana Post placing Calamity Jane – then Martha Jane Cannary – in Virginia City in December 1864. He said an article in the December 31, 1864, issue of the Montana Post indicates she was only 8 years old and begging on the streets of Virginia City.
Time to celebrate with the May/June issue
We’ve got history. We’ve got horses. We’ve got places to play. We’ve got food. The May/June issue of Montana Magazine has a lot to celebrate and it’s ready to read now.
With all there is to read, a couple celebrations take center stage. First, writer Jesse Zentz takes us back in time to the Montana of 1864 – when the area was officially granted territory status 150 years ago. It was the Wild West no doubt. Also, writers Kristen Inbody and Erin Madison take us back in time and explain the conception of Montana State Parks. The system is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and we’re encouraging everyone to get out and explore the 54 parks spread across the state.
That’s just a sliver of the stories included in the May/June issue.