There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. Dorothy Gale
Alma Terrebonne is a successful Seattle-based corporate lawyer. She makes a nice living, has a handsome banker bf named Jean Marc, and a promising future that is hers for the taking. But when her little sister dies under suspicious circumstances she races home.
Vicky Terrebonne was a single mother in Billings, Montana. One freezing night, she left the semi-conscious group of substance abusers at her apartment, hoping to score some weed from her ex. Victoria’s frozen, face-down body was found the next day. As soon as her mother had headed out, 11 year old Brittany started calling family members, hoping someone would come to take her away before Vicky returned. When no help came she retreated, in an incredibly moving moment, to find comfort with her imaginary dog.
Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right, but Alma heads back to the place and family she had fled anyway. She figures it would only be a few days. But she plans to keep a keen eye out for the predatory sorts in her office who are eager to take advantage of her absence to steal cases from her. It is no secret that the prairie is not the only place with vultures.
Through Alma’s return we get the back story of the Terrebonne family. Alma and Vicky’s parents had died when Alma was 17 and Vicky several years younger. Vicky was taken in by her Aunt Helen and domineering Uncle Walt, but stays away from them now. She had a history of drug-abuse and was constantly calling on all possible family members for help, usually of the financial sort. Alma had managed a nifty escape to a northeast college, then law school and finally a career on the coast. There are plenty of family secrets to go along with the mystery of whether Vicky was the victim of circumstance or foul play.
to him, the home place is beyond quaint. It’s isolated, disconnected, abandoned—and she knows better than he does how many eccentricities it hides. Firearms and whiskey hidden in odd corners, violence and insanity just below the surface, the way that civilization can become nothing but a thin polish over the animal will to survive.
Be it ever so humble, the home place of the title is a property that has been in the family for generations, rural, limited communications capacity, an outhouse, primitive. It was where her father and Uncle Walt had been raised. It is also a place where she and her sister had spent a lot of time as kids. It is the epitome of home, and offers the good earth that is the essence of the family name.
For a Terrebonne, the home place is the safe haven, the convergence of waters, the place where the beloved dead are as real as the living
If home is such a wonderful thing, why do we refer to the unattractive as homely? The home place of Montana, in this portrait, is one that features long-term, unacknowledged PTSD, cooking of books and maybe an illegal substance or two, anti-gay bigotry, violence of various sorts, a dark view of the Mormons, shady business dealings and a somewhat cartoonish bully of a land agent who does everything but kick a dog trying to intimidate mostly elderly people into selling their land to a mining interest. La Seur also offers some description of the relationships between the white residents and the local Native American population, which includes the detective assigned to Vicky’s case.
La Seur is a Billings resident so she knows of what she speaks in describing the place, and the interactions among its residents. The language she employs to give readers a sense of Montana begins at a very lofty place:
The cold on a January night in Billings Montana, is personal and spiritual. It knows your weaknesses. It communicates with your fears. If you have a god, this cold pulls a veil between you and your deity. It gets you alone in a place where it can work at you. If you are white, especially from the old families, the cold speaks to you of being isolated and undefended on the infinite homestead plains. It sounds like wolves and reverberates like drums in all the hollow places where you wonder who you are and what you would do in extremis. In this cold, you understand at last that you are not brave at all.
This wonderfully spun passage goes on for a bit and remains glorious. Such rich description does have the occasional reprise, but it was disappointing that there was not more of it.
La Seur also knows of the rape of landscape. Like Alma, La Seur is an attorney, a working class girl who managed to become a Yale grad and Rhodes scholar. She founded the non-profit organization Plains Justice to give residents a voice to stand up against the power of big mining interests. I expect her descriptions of despoiled landscapes and the tactics of land agents come from personal experience,
So, we have a mystery, an onion of family secrets to be peeled back, some wonderful descriptions, a strong character in Alma, consideration of the best use of the land and what constitutes a home. What’s not to like?
I am particularly allergic to romance books. Although I read plenty of books that have romance in them, I would never read a book that was labeled romance. While there is not nearly the volume of romance here that one might find in an actual specimen of the genre, there was enough to trigger my gag reflex. Part of home for Alma is Chance Murphy (not nicknamed Last or Fat, so far as I know), a cowboy sort with a degree in electrical engineering, sensitive, tough. I think he came from the build-a-guy factory. I could see him introducing himself. “Why, howdy ma’am. My name’s Studly, Studly McMuffin,” as he touches two fingers to the front tip of his Stetson. Or maybe he has a red cape stowed somewhere. Alma is plenty tough, and the story is interesting enough. This not-so-lonely ranger, or at least the degree of him, was a distraction and a downer for me. I understand that his presence was not fluff, as he offered a second draw for Alma and allows for some more detail to her back story. Not only does she have to look at how involved she wants to be in raising her niece, but there is the question of whether she wants to take a chance on rekindling her just-down-the-road adolescent romance with mister perfect, and where she ultimately wants to hang her hat.
With all she knows about the legal world, and conflicts around mining rights on the high plains, combined with her evident ability to weave a story, La Seur has the raw materials that are needed to put together a dazzling sophomore effort. One is already under way. I am looking forward to it.
There is plenty of grit in this very promising freshman novel, enough to compensate for the mush. I get that not everyone starts to sneeze and wheeze when a female character gets the drools for some guy, so it may not irk you as much as it did me. The Home Place offers a detailed look at Big Sky country that is not all bison, trout, mountains and glaciers, a look that synchs pretty well with another recent Montana novel, Fourth of July Creek. La Seur does let us in on the appeal of the place. Whether for good, ill, or both, there probably is no place like home for most of us. So tracking Alma’s decision process should ring at least some bells for plenty of readers. You will learn a bit about a place you most likely do not know well, get to unravel a few mysteries at the same time, and you won’t have to leave the comfort of you-know-where to do it.
Review posted – April 18, 2014
Pub date – July, 2014
A profile of La Seur from The Rhodes Project
La Seur also posted several energy-related vids on youtube that might be of interest
A quote from Carrie
It doesn’t matter if our elected leaders understand the seriousness of climate change if they lack the balls to face down [the] fossil industry. (4/11/14)