The urge to mythologize goes hand in hand with the desire to write. So everything about Barnaby Conrad’s Ghost Hunting in Montana points toward a self-indulgent mess waiting to happen: upper middle-class California writer, author of books like The Martini and Cigar, comes to Big Sky Country to sniff out family roots that stretch all the way back to the Indian-fighting days.
Remember reading the Pippi Longstocking books as a kid and wishing there was a swashbuckling relative like Pippi’s sea captain father hiding somewhere in your own woodpile? Some salty old cuss to take you on his knee and confirm what you always suspected: that your “parents” merely adopted you after you were orphaned in a sea-battle with pirates of the Spanish Main? The whole premise of Ghost Hunting sounds like Harry Potter for aging yuppies who order fringed buckskin vests and instant-country stressed furniture from the Robert Redford catalogue, and fly-fishing account executives pining for an ancestral sense of place and vanishing frontiers and blah blah blah. The fact that Conrad does have a distant family connection to the state just makes the whole thing seem even more noxious, like one of those otherwise deracinated dolts who gets his Scottish mojo all in a lather watching Braveheart.
If there’s anything worse than Californians, it’s Californians with claims to Montana ancestry that go back farther than our own, eh, fellow Montanans? The reader can be forgiven for hoping that Conrad’s family fairy tale turns out to be full of worms, like the family history one hapless offshoot of the Rosewater tree finds in his basement in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
Surprise, surprise, then: Conrad’s great-grandfather, William Conrad, turns out to be quite a complicated character, and one with a few knavish proclivities Conrad-the-younger hadn’t counted on learning. Indian mistresses and a few shady business deals—at this remove, those things merely add color. Even the suspicion that his great-grandfather was a whiskey trader and timely opportunist when it came to exploiting the natural and human resources of the state must have sounded appealingly roguish to Barnaby Conrad. At least until a Blackfeet tribal member frames it a little differently for him: This ancestor of yours helped enslave mine.
That’s about the time I put away the knives. And believe me, I already had them out after flipping ahead through the chapters and clapping eyes on this sentence from the essay on Glacier: “With my new Indian name, Many Bears, I felt compelled to visit the stronghold of the grizzly, Glacier National Park.” Indian name? Oh, brother. Leafing along a little further, I soon gathered the author had also re-named his truck Red Cloud. I detest this kind of Dances with Wolves crap. Can we please secede from the Union now, I thought, and deny tourist visas to anybody with a note pad?
That’s what I get for reading ahead, though. Actually, Conrad writes a pretty good Montana. His Indian name turns out to be a mild embarrassment resulting from an awkward mix-up. And for all the sentimentality you’d imagine from the book’s self-serving premise, the author rarely indulges himself with his family history. When he does, it’s hardly with the latent golly-geeness you’d expect from a guy who, after all, grew up in the cowboy-crazy ’50s knowing there was a town in Montana named after his family—talk about schoolyard cachet. He uses the word “gloaming” once (and once is once too often, if you ask me), but for the most part Conrad manages to avoid the usual painterly clichés and vacuous observations. The picture of Montana that emerges isn’t the usual sepia-tinted nonsense, but a fairly captivating account of a state as burdened with its own mythology and preconceptions as the author is burdened with his.
Ghost Hunting is divided into chapters arranged around cities or regions, with each locality serving as the staging point for an exploration into a particular chapter in Montana history. Fort Benton means steamboats, Butte means mining, Great Falls means postwar dreams and economic realities. A chapter on Livingston highlights the contrast between older traditions like the rodeo and newer economic developments like an influx of celebrities and the related popularity of painter Russell Chatham. Hanging out in a Livingston bar with adventure writer Tim Cahill, Conrad gets a dose of Caliphobic hostility from a female Michigan native who moved to Montana to go to college, and he calls her on it.
He takes it pretty well, and he can also dish it out. Conrad has a refreshing tendency to call ’em like he sees ’em, and uses less-than-diplomatic language when it comes to, for example, summing up the general vibe of a town or city in just a sentence or two. Where a writer for, say, National Geographic might mince words, Conrad just blurts it out: Great Falls, he says, “lacks vibrancy and originality.” He also shows a candid bluntness when it comes to writing the people he encounters into his book. A drunk teenage band member is identified as such, and further by full legal name. Instead of merely hinting at seediness, Conrad flatly declares that one Great Falls massage parlor is “where Korean ex-wives of airmen function as prostitutes,” neither qualifying the assertion as his own, nor attributing it to anybody else.
My only complaint about Ghost Hunting is that a chapter on Missoula has very little to do with Missoula. It’s mostly a rendezvous of modern mountain men who like to shoot black powder and flintlock rifles, and the scant four paragraphs that place the essay in (or somewhere around) Missoula are solely concerned with the hoariest of Missoula travel-writing clichés: brains and eggs at the Oxford. Here we see one of the great dangers of travel writing, and that is trying to coax a still-vibrant local tradition out of a curious anachronism. Otherwise, Ghost Hunting is great.