More Book Reviews
This is my second book review posting. While I do not intend to make this a major part of the blog, I received several positive responses to my December 2011 book reviews so I thought I'd share a few more 'good' finds. After all, on a snowy day, what's better than a good read, a hot drink, and a cheery fire? Here's a few ideas for the 'good read' part.
The Pass - Thomas Savage
Published in 1944, The Pass was Thomas Savage’s first novel. While fiction, this book positively hums with real-life. Not afraid to present an accurate picture of the west - and certainly not controlled by rules dictating his character’s ‘proper’ actions - The Pass brings Montana high desert prairies to life in all their beauty and tragedy. And, well they should, as this was Savage's birthing ground.
Young Jess moves from Colorado to a ranch he purchases on Horse Prairie (which is located outside of present day Dillon). He settles in, begins ranching, and erects a home for his young wife, Beth. Together they work to build a life and better their lot on the harsh yet beautiful prairie. His dreams are big. Are they too big? This question haunts the reader throughout the book.
Lemhi Pass and Idaho’s Salmon River country come into play as Savage paints a picture of the landscape. If you have the least affection for Montana’s high desert and the slightest interest in ranching history, this book will grab your heart strings.
Strongly written with sharp contrasts, Thomas allows us to ‘feel’ the prairie. This is no modern sappy love story where everyone lives happily ever after. It is a very real look into the rancher’s life then or now. Furthermore, Savage possesses an uncanny ability to dive behind the facade into the emotions which drive our passions, desires, and motives.
Best of all, he records those thoughts and ideas in a way which only add to our reading pleasure. Here’s a sample: “Afterward Beth remembered the time before it happened, the uneventful days. Her longing for them was like homesickness and tinged with self-reproach. Because in those tranquil days she had not felt tranquil, only bored.”
Letters From Yellowstone - Diane Smith
I picked this book up in Yellowstone (at the Canyon store) thinking I would be reading a true-life journal. I should have looked at the cover more closely. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the read, and have Diane to thank for putting me onto another book which is true - is about Yellowstone - is historical - and is a very interesting read. I am reading and plan to review this book in the next few months.
However, Diane’s book did turn out to be interesting in its own right. The book’s format is quite unique as the entire book consists of a few dozen letters written by the book’s various key characters to other folks who play no role except as letter recipients. Certainly a unique way of telling a story, Diane pulls the whole thing off quite well.
While I do not agree with many of her basic philosophical premises, and we hold differing world views, I found her sprinklings of history interesting and at times enlightening. Furthermore, since her book revolves around recording the various plants which grow in the Park, this, too, was often fascinating.
Would I recommend the book? While I have found myself drawn more recently to real-life journals, this book was interesting and well written. In addition, its unusual format makes it a nice break from the often predictable novel format. For those reasons, yes, I would recommend the book.
A Mountain Boyhood - Joe Mills
Here is a book I would HIGHLY recommend. I loved this book. In fact, the only book I have recently read which has compared in literary beauty is A Lady’s Life in the Rockies by Isabella Bird (reviewed next). Even more fascinating, Joe not only begins his travels in the same area (Estes Park), he mentions Isabella in his book even though he arrived in the area a couple decades after her visit.
As mentioned, it was the author's use of language which impressed me most. None the less, I was left shaking my head at this young man’s nerve. It seems our fore-runners were made of tougher (or perhaps less cautious) material than most folks one meets today. Many times I cringed as I read about Joe’s escapades and many times I vowed I would not let my son see this book until he was an adult (at the earliest!)
Most of Joe's journal keeps you turning the pages enthralled or appalled! His first experience in the Rockies gives one a taste of the lovely word-feast to come: “There is not even a distant relationship between mountain miles and my Kansas prairie miles. The later area ironed out flat, the former stand on end, cease to be miles and become trials.”
One final ‘plug’ - Joe was an avid student of nature, particularly wildlife. His descriptions and observations had me laughing one moment and sniffing back the tears the next. His personal observations of wildlife caught in a fire were particularly heart-rending. While the description goes on in some length, here is a taste, “A fawn stopped within a few feet of me and stared about with luminous, innocent eyes. Its hair was singed and its feet burned. It lifted its left hind food and stared at it perplexed; then I saw between its dainty, parted hoofs a burning stick.”
Best of all - if you have a Kindle (or, I would suspect, a Nook), this book is a free download! It does not get much better than that.
A Lady’s Life In The Rocky Mountains - Isabella Bird
I cannot praise this book enough. In fact, it is one of the best examples of the old adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” For, who could really believe a lone woman would set off on horseback in the middle of winter and travel over 600 miles ALONE through the Colorado Rockies. Yet, Miss Bird did so - and in 1873!
Recorded as a series of letters written to her sister, this book, however, reads more like a journal than a letter. The story begins and ends in Estes Park, Colorado. Isabella, on her way back from a vacation for health reasons in Hawaii, boards a train in San Francisco and travels to the Colorado Rockies. Her real journey begins in Estes Park where she meets a cast of interesting characters. Her lone journey through the Rockies (really a big loop) is written with such brevity it takes on an air of the unreal - as if the experience does not seem unreal enough.
However, what puts this book ‘over the top’ on my scale is the quality of writing. This woman can WRITE! Her descriptive language is amazing. In fact, I would often go back and re-read passages just to enjoy her use of words. However, I have found others who called her writing ‘flowery’ and one person said they found her descriptions boring. I had to scratch my head over that!
The flavor and tone of Isabella’s writing begins with her first words. Thus, I’ll let you be the judge of her skills. “I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh. Not lovable, like the Sandwich Islands, but beautiful in its own way! A strictly North American beauty snow-splotched mountains, huge pines, red-woods, sugar pines, silver spruce; a crystalline atmosphere, waves of the richest color; and a pine-hung lake which mirrors all beauty on its surface. Lake Tahoe is before me, a sheet of water twenty-two miles long by ten broad, and in some places 1,700 feet deep. It lies at a height of 6,000 feet, and the snow-crowned summits which wall it in are from 8,000 to 11,000 feet in altitude. The air is keen and elastic. There is no sound but the distant and slightly musical ring of the lumberer’s axe.”
While there must be millions of novels and historic records of life in our area, I have found it challenging to find books set in southwest Montana. Granted, there are numerous books on Yellowstone - and I think I'm finding a few of the really 'good' ones - but I am still looking for the 'great' ones set in my neck of the woods. If you have suggestions, I would love to hear them.
Lady of the Lake