- All Our Stories Are Here: Critical Perspectives on Montana Literature
In his introduction to this satisfying collection of literary criticism, Brady Harrison writes, “[Each] of the scholars … engages an abiding issue in western studies: does place or region matter?” (xvi). Though the title and scope of the book suggests it does matter, Harrison is skeptical about the possibility of a coherent, bounded “Montana.”
But that’s not the same as saying that boundaries aren’t telling. According to Harrison, “writers and scholars can still explore and argue over the implications and nuances of place, nature, history, memory, self, desire, and more in the lived and imaginative experiences of Montana and the West” (xvii). Harrison describes such engagement as building on the work of previous critics and historians and filling in a “few more pages” on the Montana literary story. But this is too modest. In taking up neglected writers and critical practices and expanding the scholarship on the familiar, this collection serves as a significant contribution to Montana criticism.
The twelve essays in the volume are divided into five sections: (1) Does Place Matter? (2) Women Writing Montana (3) Gay and Lesbian Literature under a Big Sky (4) Native Revisions/The Problems of History and (5) Hugo-Land. Harrison’s effective introduction sets the scene, providing a synopsis of previous Montana criticism for the uninitiated, a description of the book’s contents, as well as the analysis of regionalism.
One of the book’s best essays is William Bevis’s “Feminism and Post-modernism in the New West: Mary Blew and Montana Women’s Writing since 1990.” Bevis claims that in the 1990s a new sort of western women’s writing began to appear, works by the feminist granddaughters of pioneer women. He concentrates on Blew’s All But the Waltz (1991) and Judy Blunt’s memoir Breaking Clean (2002). The long “suppressed” stories of women offer not only new perspectives (forefronting gender roles, for example, as Blunt does) but do so in a new way—using a fragmented or “quilted” narrative that Bevis cites as a “homespun metaphor for ecriture feminine” (80). Nancy Cook’s essay on the Montana romance novel is an intriguing, if at first blush unlikely companion, to the piece on Blew and Blunt.
Karl Olson’s essay on queer ambivalence in Montana literature is another highlight of the collection. Olson is interested in “the tragic consequences of homoerotic desire ... in the western imagination” [End Page 312] (104). He focuses on two novelists, Myron Brinig and Thomas Savage, who “bestow a distinct but subtle queerness ... on more universal forms of tragedy” (104). Olson offers queerness as a metaphor for western ambivalence and alienation—but of a sort that pushes beyond tragedy and nostalgia. “As counterintuitive as it seems,” he writes, queerness might provide an impetus for necessary change, might even lead to the region’s salvation by unraveling, queering Manifest Destiny (113). The subsequent essay, by O. Alan Weltzien, again takes up Savage (who he cites as an inexplicably neglected writer), specifically his novel Power of the Dog (1967), along with Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” (1997). Weltzien’s discussion of these works and the impacts of homophobia complements Olson’s essay.
Richard Hugo is a Montana writer who has not lacked critical attention, as Harrison points out in the introduction. But no excuses are necessary for including Steve Davenport’s excellent piece on Hugo’s Montana poems, an essay that addresses “Hugo’s blue-collar worry, the economic and emotional or spiritual poverty of Montana Indians, and the tough style he leavened over time with sentiment” (201). In the following, and last essay, Lois Welch writes a brief history of the University of Montana’s influential writing program, which began in 1919, and which Hugo was a part of from 1964 to 1982. This piece fits well with the Davenport essay and with Harrison’s introduction, filling out the work of contextualizing the collection.
There’s plenty more good work in between: Jim Rains’s essay on...