Great Winter Reading

Long nights and short chilly days can bring on the winter blues. However a comfy chair, a yummy hot drink, and a good book can transport us into another time, another place, another season. Maybe this is why so many noses can be found in books this time of year.

Summertime, with its long days and time demands, rob my reading hours. Thus, this time of year my free time often finds me up to my ears in a novel, a journal, a cookbook, or a weighty treatise. My interests are broad. However, living in the Rocky Mountain west has piqued my interest in the area. I am not sure what took me so long, but in 2011 I began digging for journals, novels written by those who 'lived' the life, and anything else related to Montana in particular, the Rocky Mountains in general. It has been an interesting journey.

In past posts I have shared some favorite finds. In November I recommended Richard P. Hobson Jr.'s series. While technically not 'Rocky Mountains', one could not find a more enjoyable read set in a more wild setting. Many many were the times I felt like he were in my backyard.

In March I recommended a novel by Thomas Savage (set in the Dillon, MT area), an unusual novel set in early Yellowstone, and two real-life Rocky Mountain journals set in the Colorado Rockies. And, the post which showed the beginnings of this interesting path came in December 2011 when I covered a novel written by an Elk Lake guest set in McAlister, MT, a true-crime novel set in the Madison Range, a woman's journal set in the Colorado Rockies, and two true-life books based on our own Earthquake Lake.

It has been a pleasant journey. I often feel like a blind man groping in the dark. Google 'Montana cowboy' or 'Rocky Mountain Journal' or most any search phrase seeking books related to the area and its past, and one gets hundreds of romance novels! I am not against romance, but I want 'real' life - and that is not it! So, I bumble and fumble. I search authors and recommendations. I pick up and discard trash and tome. But, occasionally my search is rewarded with a real gem! Today I share with you three more jewels worth your attention.


Author: Various

Editor: Caroline Patterson

Genre: Anthology

Setting: Montana

A gift from a friend, I was anxious to dig into this thick volume which boasted reviews such as, "reveals a territory that's utterly compelling, the insightful and splendidly said work of thirty-nine women writers from Montana. What a wonderful collection, page after page, a handsome, open-hearted gift. This ought to be a Montana and western and national bedside book for years to come." (from the publisher's website). Add to this the book's prestigious awards: "Silver Award Winnter, Antologies Category - Book Of The Year Awards, 2008" and the "Women Writing The West" Gold Medal - and you MUST have a pretty spectacular collection.

While I cannot say I heartily agree, this is one reason I recommend the book. Clearly not everyone has the same taste. I appear to be in an audience of one.

Still, this book was well worth the read, if for no other reason that it introduced me to Judy Blunt, an amazingly talented writer whose book "Breaking Clean" is on my list of 'Must-Reads'. Add the wonderful excerpt from "The Story Of Mary Ronan" as told to Margaret Ronan, and the book was worth every penny spent. You can look for these books in future reviews.

Out of fairness to the authors and editors, I must try to put words to my objections.

  • One: There are an over-abundance of authors connected to the college in Missoula. I believe it creates a cookie-cutter 'feel'. Many of the authors spoke with the same tone, used the same voice, left the same taste in my mouth.
  • Two: Here is the real 'crux' of my complaint: As a general rule, the authors did not seem to LOVE Montana - or even the west.

Too many people romanticize the west. While life at Elk Lake is a FAR cry from what they faced, it is also far enough from the 'real' world for me to catch an occasional whiff from the past. Thus there are two extremes I cannot abide, because they are not real: the picture perfect, line-your-perfect-ponies-in-a-row west OR the there-was-nothing-lovely-about-it west. Neither are true. Yet, the romantic western writer can only see the first, and this anthology can barely see past the second.

To their credit, they wrote of a hard life. Yet it seems to have capture only their animosity - their hate. Take this brief piece from B.M. Bower's "Cold Spring Ranch":

    "She was beautiful in an odd, white-and-gold way. If her eyes had been blue, or gray - or even brown - she would have been merely pretty; but as they were, that amber tint where one looked for something else struck one unexpectedly and made her whole face unforgettably lovely. However, the color of her eyes and hair did not interest her then, or make life any easier. She was quite ordinarily miserable and homesick, as she went reluctantly back along the grassy trail. The odor of fried bacon came up to her, and she hated bacon. She hated everything."

The story revolves around a new bride who has just arrived at her new husband's middle-of-nowhere ranch. One can understand her fears, frustrations, and isolation. Yet, like so many of the book's authors, (and unlike Judy Blunt who writes one of the most heart-wrenching stories in this volume) this writer gives no hint, no sign, no hope that the land offers anything but toil, hardship, and death. Perhaps the author loved the land, however, you cannot find a hint of that in the book's entire excerpt.

So I say: take up and read. But expect to enjoy parts and perhaps not others. Personally I'd give the two authors 5 stars and the rest of the anthology 2 or 3.

THE LOG OF A COWBOY: A Narrative Of The Old Trail Days

Author: Andy Adams

Genre: True Life Journal

Setting: Cattle Trail - Texas to NW Montana

Originally published in 1903, this book is now available for FREE on your Kindle. The edition I read came in digital form from the Montana Library ebook loan system.

I enjoyed every moment spent in Andy's world. His book reads like a novel, but it is based on his experiences as a young man pushing several thousand cattle north. Andy writes with honesty and humor. He records the bad, the ugly, and the hard with honesty. This is no Western fairy tale. No Louis L'Amour or Zane Grey (good story-tellers though they are). Yet he does not miss the beauty, the magic, the passing gradeur of the wild west.

Born to pioneering parents in Indiana, Andy and his family moved to Texas in the 1880's when he was in his early 20's. He spent the next decade around cattle - mostly as a cowboy trailing beef north.

In his mid thirties he settled in Colorado Springs where he remained until he died at age 76. "The Log of a Cowboy" is Adam's first book, written when he was 43. I suspect it is a compilation of experiences from that decade trailing steers. Time had likely softened some memories and sharpened others (thus the novel-like character). Yet in Andy we find both the story-teller's skill and the western-lover's heart. Thus I'd give this book at least 4 stars!

Adams authored six other works, all receiving good reviews. I have heard this was the best. However, I will at least take a peek at his other works - sniffing around for yet another western classic.


Author: David McCumber

Genre: True Life Journal

Setting: Galt Ranch - White Sulpher Springs, MT

From then to now - from real-life to make-it-my-life - from cowboy-author to author-cowboy, the contrast between Andy Adams and David McCumber couldn't be more stark. Yet their subject, their experiences, their 'eye', and their way with words blur the gap.

David McCumber, a 44-year-old newspaper journalist abandoned the corporate world to take a bottom-of-the-totem-pole ranch hand position at Bill Galt's Montana ranch. While David's reasons are obvious: A book in the making; Bill Galt's reasons are less clear. Yet, one thing is certain, Bill knew he had hired a greenhorn cowboy, but he expected David to act like the real thing!

This is what gives David's book its breadth and depth, what turned a could be disaster into a worthy read. McCumber obviously journaled regularly - although with his long hours and hard labor, one has to wonder how he stayed awake and upright! Yet his realistic depiction of ranch life soars his book above the modern western tedium.

The Galt Ranch is a 'real' place - a BIG place. Located a few miles outside of Sulpher Springs, MT, the century-old working cattle ranch covers over 100,000 acres. And, for a year McCumber called this massive spread home.

I must admit my first glimpse of the real David McCumber (Google image) came as a shock. Yes, he admits to being out of shape, out of his element, and out classed during most of his ranch sojourn, but I did not expect to see a corporate dweller complete with suit, tie, and exposed thinning grey hair. Yet, after his 365 day trial by fire, David served as Managing Editor for Seattle's oldest newspaper, the "Seattle Post Intelligencer. When Hearst purchased the paper and shut down its print edition, McCumber became editor of two Hearst-owned Connecticut newspapers. So, the man really was out of his comfort zone!

Perhaps this is what makes this book so fresh, so real. From the time ranch soil first blackened his boots to the day he brushed the final hay and dust off his Levis, David lived the muck and glory of a Galt Ranch cowboy life. Thanks to his well-honed skills, readers can experience it to. The love of the land. The blood and crap. The abused muscles and frozen fingers. The far-reaching vistas and closeness of the surgical room. Just another day in the life of a cowboy? Well, if you haven't read McCumber's book, you really haven't a clue what that means to modern-day cattlemen! Definitely a 4 star read!

For those curious to learn more about the Galt Ranch, I have learned Animal Planet put out a 2012 TV series entitled, "Last American Cowboy" which features "The Hughes Mountain Ranch (a 12,000 acre century old cattle ranch which offers guest lodging); the 10,000 acre "Stucky Ranch" (no website - just a real working ranch); and the "Galt Ranch" (setting for McCumber's story). In addition, Western Horseman highlighted the Galt Ranch horses in its August 2002 issue.

Every one of these books brings a different facet of Montana cowboy life to the forefront. Each one, even my least favorite, is well worth the time spent following the author's tracks. Every one offers word pictures to stir the heart and make one forget the cold winds whistling past the chimney on a dark winter night!

Lady of the Lake

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