When he tries to make sense of the events of his past, Swain Wolfe will sometimes lean back in his chair and shut his eyes tightly. If it weren’t for the local author’s steady and clear voice, the expression on his face would communicate pain rather than concentration. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say both aspects are correct. After all, the act of remembering is more than just the retelling of events; it’s a sometimes painful process of understanding how events unfolded and why.
“The problem with writing after 40 years,” he admits, “is that sometimes the memory takes over and does what it wants. It was a strange life, and when you seriously start thinking about the painful things, you inevitably step back and lose judgment and then you begin to understand.”
When he embarked on his latest book, The Boy Who Invented Skiing, a memoir of his boyhood years in the West of the 1940s and 1950s, Wolfe simply wanted to collect the stories of his childhood and write them down. It’s a childhood worth remembering, and as Wolfe recounts his family’s move from his father’s tuberculosis sanatorium near Colorado Springs to his stepfather’s 6,000-acre ranch and later to Missoula (nicknamed “Monkey Town” by his Uncle Bud, who claimed the town was “run by a bunch of monkeys”), he captures a West that no longer exists, except in our novels. Wolfe’s boyhood and young adulthood had all the elements of a Western adventure, including, among many other things, homemade skis, a horse named Joe, a Montana forest fire and a stint working underground as a miner for Anaconda Copper in Butte. His was a West that emerged gradually from the era of horse-drawn farm equipment and the excitement of the postwar boom.
As his story unravels, though, Wolfe’s memoir cuts far deeper than your typical picturesque Western romance. It’s also the story of family tragedies piled one on top of the other. In the book, the adult Wolfe re-creates a boyhood voice that matures as the memoir progresses. He attempts to make sense of his father’s morphine addiction and early death, the violent and destructive marriage between his mother and stepfather, the self-destructive and erratic behavior of the little sister who was forever damaged at age 2 by an allergic reaction to a bite of egg. That sister would run away to join a pornography circus where she played Lady Godiva and was later murdered outside Sacramento. More than anything, though, the memoir evokes the vivid and intense image of Wolfe’s mother, Lynn Myrdal Wolfe, a woman of enormous capacity, intelligence and energy who was alternately adored, hated and feared by the members of her community and family. In one passage Wolfe recounts the rage he felt as a young boy when one of his pet magpies killed another beloved magpie named Inspector:
“I grabbed the bad bird by the head and swung him around, trying to wring his neck. In midswing the screen door flew open, and Mother was looking down, giving me her stern face. ‘What the hell are you doing?’
“I was in tears. ‘He killed Inspector. I was tryin’ to wring its neck.’
“‘Give me that bird,’ she demanded.
“I handed her the bad bird, then watched as she lifted it above her head and brought it down with a snap. She handed it back, dead. ‘That is how you wring a bird’s neck,’ she said and disappeared into the cabin. There didn’t seem to be much wringing involved.”
Wolfe says his idea for The Boy Who Invented Skiing first developed years ago when his mother lost her eyesight and would sit for hours trying to make sense of the past. Wolfe would listen as she recalled, on her deathbed, secretly running the business end of her husband’s tuberculosis sanatorium (secret because the board members wouldn’t have stomached a woman running things), bossing the male workers around until the day the sanatorium shut down. After her first husband (Swain’s father) realized he would soon die from a weakened heart condition and an increasing dependence on the morphine and nicotine he injected between his toes, he left her and encouraged her second marriage to Sam Wolfe, the wealthy yet abusive rancher who would become Swain’s stepfather.
He writes: “Before Mother died, I asked her why she had come to hate my real father so much. She had to think about it for several minutes, then she said, ‘He forced me to marry Sam. It couldn’t have been worse if he’d pushed me down a flight of stairs and broken every bone in my body.’ She had to think of her answer too long to be convincing. She may have hated Father because he had pushed her—not down Sam’s stairs, but simply away. He abandoned her. Yes, Father had given the union his blessing for the sake of his children, but Mother and Sam were co-conspirators in their own anarchy of love.”
“Writing the book and beginning it while Mother was dying changed me in a lot of ways and was one of the most intense experiences of my life,” the author explains. “How do you look at the events of a lifetime—the savage, the bitter, and come away without destroying yourself? I think that’s something everybody fights with. It’s something I wanted to answer for myself in writing the book and I think it’s the same thing I want readers to get out of it.”
In writing The Boy Who Invented Skiing, Swain himself has come to his own conclusion about personal history. “You can never really get the right answer [about the past],” he says, “and you can’t really go back, but you can seriously start thinking about it.”
Swain Wolfe reads from and signs copies of The Boy Who Invented Skiing at Fact & Fiction Friday, July 7, at 7 PM.