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Great Reads: What’s the Best Montana Novel?

What is Montana’s best-loved Novel?


If you regularly tune in Montana PBS and Sarah Aronson’s lively weekly radio bookcast, “The Write Question,” you’ve probably not only voted for your favorite in The Great Montana Read promotion, but you’ve known the voting public’s preference since New Year’s Day, when the winner was announced.


What you missed however was the soul searching, arm wrestling and yes, even some begrudging rule bending that went into choosing the Great Montana Read’s Top 20. After all, this is Montana we’re talking here. One novel? Give me a break!


The contest was one of several PBS-sponsored state spinoffs of its Great American Read program, which eventually crowned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as the nation’s top novel from a list of 100. Aronson was tasked with assembling seven Montana literary experts, each of whom was asked to compile a list of their 25 Montana favorites. They were then faced with paring their combined mountain of more than 100 titles into an armload of 20.


First to be surprised by the lists were the list makers themselves. University of Montana English professor and writer Robert Stubblefield confined his list to novels as instructed, Humanities Montana director of programs and grants Kim Anderson sprinkled hers with a few memoirs and Mansfield librarian Megan Stark felt compelled to include a YA novel or two. Clearly, novels had to give way to the not-novel.


“One of the challenges of this particular list is that it did favor novels as a format, and we were encouraged to understand that broadly,” says Stark. “The shape of a novel influences our experiences as readers, whereas the shape of a poem or short story open other possibilities for our reading experience. I would have loved to have seen those authors on the list as well.”


Way-worthy not-novels on the Great Montana Read’s Top 20 include Ivan Doig’s memoir This House of Sky, Jim Harrison’s novella collection Legends of the Fall and Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.


Soul searching also factored in making the lists as the panelists weighed their personal relationships with Montana, both as a state and a state of mind.


Kim Anderson, for example, grew up in Montana but loathed the vintage Big Sky Westerns as a kid. “All I wanted to read was Henry James,” she admits.


After moving away to work in New York City for 16 years, a weird change occurred.


“It was being away and then coming back that made me finally go, oh my God, there is a huge, rich heritage here of amazing literature,” she says. “That was really the switch for me. Sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate home.”


Among her favorites that did not make the Top 20: Thomas McGuane’s Nobody’s Angel, Bill Kittredge’s The Willow Field and Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing.

Megan Stark, on the other hand, found that her librarian obsession with a well-balanced bookshelf caused her to want to fill in the blanks she found in the panel’s mix.


“One of the things that surprised me about the Great American Read is that their national list did not include a single book by a Native American writer,” she says. Stark was proud that the Great Montana Read Top 20 corrected that oversight in spades with A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, The Surrounded by D’Arcy McNickle and Fools Crow by James Welch.

She was equally pleased to see the woman’s perspective on the Treasure State well represented with Debra Magpie Earling’s Perma Red, Mildred Walker’s Winter Wheat and Kirby Larson’s YA novel, Hattie Big Sky.


Among her favs that did not make the cut: Richard Hugo’s poetry collection Making Certain It Goes On, David Long’s short story collection Home Fires and The Hanging Tree by Dorothy Johnson.


For Robert Stubblefield, the soul searching was both literary and personal, as he worked with Earling on Perma Red and knew well and worked beside everyman philosopher Jim Harrison and noir detective maverick James Crumley, who was represented on the Top 20 with his classic, The Last Good Kiss. Harrison died in 2016, Crumley in 2008.


“Harrison was incredibly generous with young writers,” he recalls. “I was glad to see Crumley on there, too. He was a friend and always so generous to other writers. I hope that gets some people up and reading him again. It’s funny how many people still make a pilgrimage to Missoula to see Jim’s photo there at Crumley’s Corner in The Depot. My criteria for a good whodunit is if I could really care less who done it at some point. Crumley’s plot was oftentimes kind of incidental, but that dialog and those characters were the strength of those books.”


In Stubblefield’s view, two contemporary authors are sorely missing from the Top 20: James Lee Burke and McGuane. Why they’re absent from the Top 20? Although they appeared on some panelists’ lists, he suspects both may have been equally associated with films and fiction set elsewhere; Burke in Louisiana and Texas (the Dave Robicheaux series, “Two for Texas”) and McGuane in Florida (Panama, “92 in the Shade”).


Stubblefield’s wish list that fell short of the Top 20: The Sheep Queen by Thomas Savage, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West by Bryce Andrews and One Sweet Quarrel by Dierdre McNamer and Nancy Pearl.


Which Top 20 title came as the biggest surprise to the GMR panelists? That would be The Ploughman, the 2014 debut by Great Falls-born career carpenter turned wordsmith Kim Zupan.

“I was absolutely thrilled that The Ploughman made the final cut because it’s an awesome book,” says Anderson. “It came out so recently that I wasn’t sure what kind of recognition it would get, but to me, it epitomizes a new kind of Western writing.”


Stark credits Ivan Doig’s unparalleled depiction of Montana’s unique character, cultural contrasts and jaw-dropping natural beauty with landing three of his books on the Top 20: the memoir This House of Sky, English Creek and Last Bus to Wisdom.


“One of the things we talked about was how consistently and beautifully he portrays landscape as a character,” she says. “The challenge to all Montana writers to really interact with a landscape that can leave most of us speechless is so daunting that I think that was the reason he placed three books.”


She summarized the panel’s hope that Montana readers and those who dream of one day relocating here use the Great Montana Read hits and misses as their personal boarding pass to the riches of Montana.


“Our list shows that Montana is not just an historical place; Montana is also modern. Our historical stories influence who we are and how we approach this place, but we hope our list always grows forward and always grows more inclusive and always complicates our story lines in ways that we wouldn’t have thought possible 10, 20, 100 years ago. Because that’s how Montana becomes a place that has meaning for everyone.”


What does that mean for newcomers and maybe-wannas? Stubblefield offers the perfect pitch:


“Montana books can help you absorb the culture until you do absorb the culture.” E

Note: Completing the MBR panel were Desirée Funston, reference librarian at Missoula Public Library, Debbie Stewart, library specialist at Great Falls Public Library and Chris Seifert and Nikki Vradenburg of MontanaPBS.

—Jay MacDonald


James Crumley's book was one of the Top 20 Great Montana Reads finalists.

Find out the winner of the MontanaPBS Great Reads Montana after Jan. 1, 2019:

www.montanapbs.org/greatmontanaread/