Tag Archives: Montana

The Center of Everything by Jamie Harrison

book cover

Good mothers were rarities, the center of everything.

Sometimes the beauty of the written word can make you stop, pause, sigh deeply, and appreciate the moment. I am fortunate to have been able to read and report on many top tier works of fiction. It remains a singular joy to come across written passages that bring me near to tears with their sheer power and beauty. Here is the beginning of the novel, the beginning of what brought on my overwrought response:

When Polly was a child, and thought like a child, the world was a fluid place. People came and went and never looked the same from month to month, or year to year. They shifted bodies and voices—a family friend shaved a beard, a great-aunt shriveled into illness, a doctor grew taller—and it would take time to find them, to recognize them. Polly studied faces, she wondered, she undid the disguise. But sometimes people she loved disappeared entirely, curling off like smoke. Her father, Merle, told her that her mind was like a forest, and the trees inside were her people, each leaf or needle a memory. Her mother, Jane, said that memories were the way a person tried to turn a life into a story, and Papa, Polly’s great-grandfather, said that there was a story about everything. He would tell them something long and strange to explain the existence of tigers or caves or trees, but then he’d say, Well, the Greeks said the same thing, or the Finns; the Athabascans, the Etruscans, the Utes, Days were an Aztec snake swallowing its tail, water came from a Celtic goddess’s eyes, thunder was a deadly fart from a Bantu in the sky.

See what I mean? The issues noted in the passage presage the stories and memory issues to come. The way a child thinks? Check. People looking different from one time to another? Check. Needing time to recognize faces beneath disguises? Check. People disappearing? Sadly, check. Memory as a way of turning lived experience into story? Check. Cultures, and people coming up with tales to explain observed events? Check.

Jamie Harrison – image from her site

We meet Polly Schuster (nee Berrigan) as an adult, 42, having recently suffered a serious injury, hit by a car while bike-riding. She has a considerable scar on her skull from the needed repairs. The damage to her brain has left her something other than what she had been up until then. She has become forgetful, can drift off sometimes while with other people, but mostly she now has issues with memory. With her great-aunt Maude coming to town to celebrate her 90th birthday, there is a flurry of preparations (stories told, photographs and artifacts of earlier times unearthed) that summon memories for Polly. But can she rely on those recollections? What we have here is an unwillingly unreliable narrator.

The novel is told in (mostly) two times, the present (2002) in Montana, and 1968, when Polly was eight years old and her family lived on Long Island, with dramatic events in 1968 leading up to what she calls “The End of the World” and “The Beginning of the World,” in that order. The 2002 world is ordered by Maude’s arrival, but also by an alarming event.

Water here is less the usual symbol of rebirth than of death. Two boating incidents a lifetime apart. Were they accidents, or something else? This being Montana, a river runs through the story. Ariel, a young woman the Schusters had hired as a sitter for their two children, has gone missing, kayaking on the Yellowstone River too early in the season, (The Yellowstone runs rough this time of year. Someone dying on the river was not unusual. It was easier when it was a tourist, but far too often it was a local, like Ariel.) she has vanished. Her riverine companion, Graham, a person of questionable character and veracity, survived. He is widely suspected of having a hand in Ariel’s fate, whatever that turns out to be. Was she the victim of simple misfortune, or something worse? Where is she? What about the man Polly had found dead on the beach back in 1968? What was the deal with that? There are other incidents involving water, including a woman who drowns, trapped underwater after an accident, a plane crashing into a lake, another body found on a beach, and a woman attempts suicide by walking into the sea.

Polly’s great-grandmother Dee told her once that there were three kinds of dreams—not the passing filaments, the sorted trash from the day, but the ones that came back, over and over—about three kinds of things: wishes or desires, loss or being lost, and fear. All her life, Polly thought these categories felt true, and lately, they came to her in combination.

What are memories, but the distilled media and emotional resonance of events we have experienced? Yet, our abilities as children to understand what those events are, or mean is far from complete, our ability to form coherent, accurate recollections remains incomplete. Thus, magical thinking. Three-year-old Polly believed that when people died they went somewhere else, disguised. So, when Jane and Merle moved to NYC she thought they were looking for her late grandfather and aunt. Four-year-old Helen, Polly’s daughter in 2002, looks under rocks for the missing Ariel, fearing she may have melted. Seven and eight-year-old Polly tries to make some sense of the bodies found on Long Island beaches in successive summers. Then tries to remember, from adulthood, with a damaged brain, what it was that had actually happened.

There are plenty of identifiable links to the author’s life. Here are a few. Living in Montana is the most obvious. But other residences noted in the novel reflect Harrison’s experience as well. Her parents lived in Long Island when she was small, as did Polly’s. Both Harrison and her husband, and Polly and Ned moved from New York to Montana. When Harrison moved, she and her husband lived with well-known painter and writer, Russell Chatham, thus, perhaps a bit of inspiration for the painter character, Rita. Although, I expect her exposure to Chatham was a lot less dramatic than Polly’s is to Rita. Born in the same year as Polly, Harrison grew up in an accomplished, artistic family. Her father, Jim Harrison, was the author of Legends of the Fall, among other works. A-list writers were part of her growing up experience. Papa reflects this, renowned for his study of story and culture, a Joseph Campbell sort. Livingston, MT, where Harrison lives, is, notoriously, home, at least part-time, to a host of Hollywood A-listers. Notorious because the wealthy Californians did an excellent job of bidding up the price of local land and housing, to the point that many locals who might want to stick around have been priced out. The western invaders are represented, at least somewhat, by Drake Aasgard, an actor of note, who employs Polly to screen scripts for him.

Those good mothers, noted in the quote at the top, and the title of the book, are far from ubiquitous, and so, are special when they turn up. But it seemed to me that the title could, as easily, be referring to family, or even memory, as the center of everything. My only gripe about the book is that the mysteries seemed at times to drift maybe a bit too far back from the amazing description of the concrete lives of the central characters. Tap, tap, tap. This is all very interesting, but I want to know what happened to…

There are mysteries to be solved, sans PI. Polly drifts out of reality at times, struggling to discern what is, or was real. The story is told both from adult Polly’s perspective and from her as a child. This is pulled off quite well, believable in both cases.

Polly continues to struggle throughout. Some mysteries are resolved. Some questions remain, but the greatest strength of the novel, in addition to her celestial command of language, is Harrison’s vivid, detailed portrayal of an extended family, a community of the related and connected. Polly may be the lead, but this is an ensemble cast, with many interesting characters, who gain our attention in different ways. The rich detail Harrison offers gives very real texture to the characters’ lives. Both time settings are given close looks and we can see what the characters see, feel what they feel. There are characters aplenty striding through, many of whom would merit their own full-length tales. Papa and Dee’s household in the 60s was warm, raucous, and exciting. These people will certainly grab and hold your interest. There is magic aplenty in this book, and not in a fantasy way, although Polly does have some experiences that could easily have gone there.

The Center of Everything is a triumph, evocative writing, wonderful characters, smart consideration of how story functions in the world, as well as in literature, a 3D-immersive portrayal of a family, and a few mysteries as well. This novel should be at the center of your reading plans this winter, if you can remember.

Childhood is a green knot, hiding places and suspended time. It is the speed she can run through grass, the heat of the air, the fear of pissing her pants on the school bus, the difficulty of returning someone’s gaze, a bright object in the sand, the way a good moment can slide to bad.

Review posted – January 29, 2021

Publication date – January 12, 2021

I received a copy of this book from Counterpoint in exchange for an honest review. At least I think that was the deal. I can’t quite seem to recall.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, GR and FB pages

—–Lithub – Jamie Harrison on Finding Her Way to the Writer’s Life in the American West by Thomas McGuane (an old family friend)
—–David Abrams Books – My First Time: Jamie Harrison – for The Widow Nash, but some materials here are relevant

Items of Interest
—–Lapham’s Quarterly – Once Upon Time – the four oldest Fairy Tales
An image of it – Jamie says, in a facebook posting of this, “This is fun; I played around with these shifts in my new book.” One of the characters studies how stories change over eons, culture to culture.
—–Wiki on Jim Harrison, Jaime’s father, renowned poet, and author of Legends of the Fall – he was a professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island in 1965-66

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The Home Place by Carrie La Seur

book cover

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.

book cover

The author – from her site

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

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

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)


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Fourth of July Creek by Henderson Smith

book coverThere should be fireworks shooting off for Smith Henderson’s first novel, as it is a just cause for celebration. This is not to say that the subject matter is exactly festive, but the book is a triumph.

Pete is a social worker in Tenmile, Montana, a place so insignificant it was named for it’s distance from the nearest possible somewhere. The folks he is charged with trying to help out need all the support they can get, but some can’t seem to accept any.

There are three main threads braided into this novel. Cecil is a troubled teen in a household where the biggest problem is his substance-abusing layabout mother. The two do not get along, big time. Firearms are involved.

When eleven-year-old Benjamin Pearl wanders into town alone, dressed in rags, and looking like he’d been reared by wolves, Pete is called in to check things out. Following the story of Benjamin and his family is the core here, although a portion of almost every chapter is given over to the third thread, Rachel Snow, Pete’s daughter, who has troubles of her own. Pete is the central element interlacing with the threads.

Pete Snow is basically a decent guy, bloody far from perfect, but his heart is in the right place. He really cares about the people he is charged with helping, and tries his damndest to figure out what the best thing is to do for each. That it does not always work out, and that he is better at helping others than he is himself, are foregone conclusions.

The Author

Smith Henderson offers us a look at a place in America, rural, and sometimes not so rural Montana, but also a time. It is no coincidence that the story is set in 1980, when the promotion of “Morning in America” also encouraged the release of a lot of pent-up insanity. Benjamin’s father is a seriously scary survivalist. His paranoia may at times have a basis in reality, but his worldview is straight out of the Lunatic Fringe Encyclopedia. There have always been folks with Jonathan Pearl’s particular flavor of madness, but it looks like Henderson is signaling what lies ahead, a world in which entities like right-wing talk radio, Fox News and any organization associated with the Koch brothers foment fear 24/7 and offer a media route in which to legitimize lunacy. Ben’s father actually believes, when he sees jet contrails, that the gub’mint is spying on him. There is plenty more to that story, but the political, this-is-what-is-being-unleashed, element is quite significant, although it is only implied. The implications of freedom are given a look. At what point does your ability to be free, living a life of paranoia, infringe on the rights of those who have not chosen the same path? Where is the line between legitimate desires for non-interference and license to do whatever? Where is the line between society’s right to protect it’s children and parents’s rights to raise children as they see fit?

We get a look at institutional limitations and extreme downsides, even when those institutions are staffed by well-meaning folks. Of course not every one is so well-meaning. We also get a look at the hazards to kids of growing up working class, from screwed up homes. Children have a lot to contend with here.

Ok, now that I have made the whole thing sound like such a downer, time to shine a bit of light in the darkness. While Pete definitely has his issues, he is beautifully drawn and is someone we can cheer on, most of the time anyway. There are some good people in Tenmile, a family who fosters kids in need, a caring judge, a tonic to the extant horrors. Learning about the survivalist world is fascinating stuff, even if these days we know more about it than we should have to. The writing is powerful and stunningly beautiful. A sample of lovely descriptive:

He liked the Sunrise Cafe for its coffee and smoky ambience and the way his arms stuck to the cool plastic tablecloths in summer and how the windows steamed, beaded, and ran with tears when everyone got out of church and came in for breakfast on a cold morning. He liked how Tenmile smelt of burnt leaves for most of October. He liked the bench in front of the tobacco shop on the square and how you could still send a child to buy you a pouch of Drum from inside with no problem from the proprietor. He liked the bowling alley that was sometimes, according to a private schedule kept only by them, absolutely packed with kids from the local high school and the surrounding hills who got smashed on bottles of vodka or rotgut stashed under their seats and within their coats. How much biology throbbed and churned here–the mist coming off the swales on the east side of town and a moose or elk emerging as though through smoke or like the creature itself was smoking. How the water looked and how it tasted right out of the tap, hard and ideal, like ice cold stones and melted snow. How trout looked in that water, brown and wavering and glinting all the colors there were and maybe some that didn’t really exist on the color wheel, a color, say, that was moss and brown-spotted like peppercorns and a single terra-cotta-colored stone and a flash of sunlight all at once. That color existed in the water here.

There are plenty more examples to be found here. One particular image of native fauna coming into contact with civilization was particularly chilling.

Henderson may be new to novel-writing, but he has already had some success with other forms. I do not know if he had much success as a social worker, a prison guard or a technical writer, but he co-wrote a feature film, while at the University of Texas, Dance With The One, won a 2012 Pushcart Prize for his story Number Stations, and the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award for Fiction. I guess he has emerged. It should be known that you have probably seen some of Smith Henderson’s work already, without realizing. You know that half-time Superbowl ad for Chrysler, with Clint Eastwood, Halftime in America? Henderson was one of the writers. It ain’t halftime this time. Henderson, with Fourth of July Creek goes long and scores a game-winning TD.

There is satisfaction to be had in how Henderson resolves the conflicts he has presented. And even when his outcomes are not happy ones, they are believable. We have been treated in recent years to a wealth of top-notch first novels. Fourth of July Creek will fit in nicely with the likes of The Orchardist, The Enchanted, and The Guilty One, for example, and it would sit very comfortably next to works by Willy Vlautin. Smith Henderson’s is a dazzling new literary voice, and the release of this outstanding work is cause enough to light up the sky with barges-full of pyrotechnics.

Publication date – May 27, 2104

This review was first posted on GoodReads on March 7, 2014

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Couldn’t find a web or FB page for Henderson, but here he is on Twitter

In case you missed it above, here is the Halftime in America ad

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