- The Names of the Stars: A Life in the Wilds by Pete Fromm
Pete Fromm, a five-time Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award winner, has long been prominent in the canon of contemporary Montana literature. He’s published several short story collections and three novels, but his early memoir, Indian Creek Chronicles (1993), remains his best-known book. In those Chronicles, Fromm, a naive wildlife biology major from Missoula, famously winters over in Idaho’s and Montana’s Magruder Crossing, guarding about [End Page 130] 2,500,000 salmon eggs. This coming-of-age memoir demonstrates, early on, his mastery of self-mockery, an essential part of his persona that in no way masks his tight, lyrical prose that often takes us into the backcountry.
Many books later, Fromm was approached about spending a late spring month in Gates Park, way up the Sun River’s north fork, in the middle of Montana’s legendary Bob Marshall Wilderness. After his wet month (May–June 2004), Fromm spent years on what ultimately became his memoir of early middle age. In The Names Fromm writes his personal story, easily switching from the four-week drama to various chapters of his Wisconsin childhood and adolescence, his Indian Creek season, and his career as a seasonal river ranger, after college, in Grand Teton National Park.
The composite portrait, the threads of his past that lead to his one-month sojourn guarding buckets of Arctic grayling eggs in two locations, defines a family man insistently drawn to backcountry. In contrast to Chronicles’s ignorant twenty-year-old narrator, foot-loose and fancy free, now Fromm lovingly evokes his wife and two sons, then nine and six. In fact the ache of his missing his sons constitutes the emotional core of this moving memoir. He collects artifacts in medicine bags and sews moccasins from hides he brought in for them.
Fromm makes a sweet case for wilderness as he narrates some of his mishaps and glorious moments. We feel the cold rain trickling inside his raingear and the mud crawling up his boots and waders (it rains most of the month). But over his days Fromm tilts from loneliness to a sense of luxurious solitude, even as he monitors local wildlife. The ways in which he describes the nearby presence of grizzlies sustains narrative suspense. But his eyes and ears also record whitetail deer, elk herds, black bears, big beavers in a big pond, and lots of birds, from a robin who nests at the cabin to snipe swooping at nightfall.
In some spare hours Fromm explores with his fly rod, and those scenes echo Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories in upper Michigan, which Fromm rereads during his stay.
His retreat enables him to take stock of his life, and he persuasively sorts out his competing loves. He and his wife are already teaching [End Page 131] the sons hiking, river rafting, fishing, and camping, and he hopes their futures hold the kinds of wilderness ecstasy he has known. As he reviews his life, he generously credits not only the woman he ultimately married but his father and his park service mentor, Sage DeGroot. These men push him to walk down and up trails of his choosing, to pursue his love of the worlds beyond the built environment, and to follow his imagination and passion as a writer.
By the time Fromm’s final week rolls around, time speeds up as he tries to slow it down, grateful for his ten-miles-a-day idyll. In The Names Fromm teaches us again how love of family ultimately blends with love of backcountry. The physical separation belies the fundamental unity, and we can’t read or write or live that lesson often enough.