Mary Clearman Blew
hardcover, University of Nebraska Press
390 pages, $24.95
Montana’s transforming. You notice it whether you’ve lived here 60 years or six. Ranches and farms go under, their land subdivided and stocked with seasonal houses. Strip malls replace strip mines. Strangers abound. The old ways are fading from memory. The past acquires an aura of romance, and any tangible association with it earns its bearer a kind of social currency. Can you imagine a Montana politician without a cowboy hat and boots and a “—th generation” following his name?
But here’s the thing: The past is really no better than the present; it’s only different. After all, the past, just like the present, was populated with, well, people. And people have a funny way of sharing similar experiences. Love, betrayal, courage, envy, compassion—the full palette of human emotion and drama is as fully in use today as it was then, for good or ill. The folk that came before us weren’t better, they just came before us.
What gives the past its gloss, though, are the stories we tell, the homespun morality plays acted out at kitchen tables that turn into cultural narratives. Enter Jackalope Dreams, by Mary Clearman Blew. It’s the story of the transformation of rural Montana—Fort Maginnis, to be exact—as experienced by Corey Henry, a schoolmarm spinster daughter of a famous local cowboy and rodeo star, Loren Henry. Her life takes a drastic twist when a self-absorbed Californian and survivalist, Hailey Doggett, builds a McMansion in the neighborhood. First, Corey is fired from her teaching job, and then her father commits suicide, splitting his head open with a shotgun.
The rest of the book pits Corey against her father’s life. She’s forced to sift through the accumulated years of records and witnesses to patch together a rough portrait of a man who, when alive, said little, either about himself or much of anything, as was the way. What she finds surprises her and contradicts the legend that has grown up around him.
At the same time, the situation on the Doggett compound degenerates. His daughters are near feral, either completely neglected or abused by Hailey’s brother, Eugene, who’s newly released from prison. Hailey’s wife, Rita, sleepwalks in a haze of depression, dimly aware of the stockpile of arms, the chemistry lab in the trailer and the overall mysterious origin of the money that bought her a new life in Montana. Eventually Hailey’s teenage daughter, Ariel, runs away, and is sheltered by Corey.
And that’s where the heart of the story is—the relationship between the quiet bronco-bustin’ cowgirl, and the deeply troubled California-bred teen, whose familiar environment comprises iPods and the Internet. Ariel’s language and behavior are so foreign to Corey, it’s like an alien has descended on her ranch. Eventually, it’s their shared experiences—their gender, their alienation from father and family, their isolation—that overcomes their cultural differences, and they become strong allies in the drama that unfolds.
Their relationship mirrors a common theme in the book—the drawing together of Fort Maginnis natives and outlanders. In addition to the two girls, there’s Corey’s relationship to lawyer John Perrine, a fat Easterner who did some bull riding in college and moved to Montana to fulfill a lifelong cowboy fantasy. There’s also the retired non-native veterinarian, Doc MacKenzie, who befriends his neighbor and old ranch wife and daughter, Annie Reisenauer.
In one memorable scene, a troupe of local ranch sons gathered together by Perrine, and accompanied by Corey, are hired to stage faux robberies of a tourists’ site-seeing train. They gallop across the land—riding their horses faster than they ever did for ranch work—in a swirl of dust and gunfire (blanks, of course), becoming the very image of the romanticized cowboy. It’s foolish, of course, and make-believe. But it’s also possibly some of the most exhilarating moments in the book. The sons and daughter of the authentic and more mundane West find their greatest joy in staging Western fantasy. Without the tourists to perform for, they’re only hardscrabble farmers wrestling poverty.
Blew’s writing craft cannot be denied. The prose is delightful, at times careful and descriptive, at others, unleashed and galloping. It’s as striking and complex as the land that frames the novel. If there’s a problem with the book, it’s that some passages plod, getting caught up in ensuring that the story holds together—adding here, tinkering there, and lacking the pull and wild abandon of a great tale. The Doggetts, too, especially Hailey, come across as cartoonish and unreal, a stereotype in a book devoted to smashing them.
And that’s what makes Blew’s novel so refreshing: It’s devastating to the fantastic romance that’s embedded itself as Montana’s story. What’s more, she does it not through bitter or withering satire, but with a serious and unapologetic look at the Anglo ranchers who once formed the bulk of the state. After all, that’s when the novel is at its best, when it peeks into the attic bedroom of the deceased Loren Henry, say, or at the financial struggles of the Staple farm. In that sense Jackalope Dreams is a love story—not a book of infatuation, but a long and generous account of a people who once lived, just as we do.
Mary Clearman Blew reads from and signs copies of Jackalope Dreams Wednesday, April 23, at Chapter One Bookstore in Hamilton at 7 PM, and Thursday, April 24, at Missoula’s Fact & Fiction at 7 PM.