By Ed Kemmick
I went into This House of Books, the new independent, cooperative bookstore in downtown Billings, determined to buy a Christmas present for somebody.
Instead, I bought Aaron Parrett’s “Montana Then and Now” for me. That’s usually how my Christmas shopping goes. In this case I blame Parrett. I had read his “Montana Americana Music” earlier this year and quickly became an admirer of his writing and his deep knowledge of this state.
I hope that also explains why I’m reviewing a book published in 2014. A good book is a good book, and if I get the urge to tell people about a book I’m a little late in discovering, where’s the harm in that?
The premise of “Montana Then and Now” is simple enough, as so many good ideas are. Montana Territory was established in 1864, so Parrett set out to examine how it had changed, and what themes had remained constant, in the intervening 150 years.
In fewer than 200 pages he somehow manages to touch on all the main points of Montana history, introduce the reader to dozens of public figures, characters and scoundrels worth knowing, and to convey with some depth what it actually feels like to live here.
He has a generally progressive point of view—but then so had Montana for much of its history—and he rightly dwells on the new Montana Constitution of 1972, with its unique enumeration of the right to “a clean and healthful environment” and its explicit guarantees of the right to privacy.
And though he doesn’t shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of Montana history, neither does he fail to note how far we’ve come as a people:
“On hundred and fifty years ago, slavery persisted in at least half the country. Even in Montana, African-Americans were disenfranchised and American Indians were treated as hostile enemies. From the first decades of our existence as a territory we have moved from state-sponsored racism in miscegenation laws and Indian policy to a present day in which prejudice lingers but is no longer the foundation of law.”
Some battles continue, but in a new guise. “Even though the struggle between miners and the corporation that eventually assumed nearly total control of the state—the Anaconda Company—is a thing of the past,” Parrett writes, “corporations and grassroots coalitions of Montana citizens continue to fight over the future of the state. The battle has shifted from labor versus capital to development versus the environment.”
The book is full of such insights. It is also well larded with obscure, revealing yarns and short compelling digressions, mini-chapters of Montana trivia breaking up the larger narrative. My favorite digression was a two-page discussion on the name of Montana.
Parrett says there is a widespread misperception—and you can put me down as one of those holding that misperception—that the name “Montana” is of Spanish origin. His examination of the subject is brief and compelling, the sort of thing you’d want to read aloud at a gathering of Montanans.
Another bit of Montana trivia is titled “How Did People Get to Montana?” It begins with a look at migrations from the Old World to the New, and ends with this observation: “In 2014, Montana’s relative inaccessibility remains one of its charms, or, depending on whom you talk to, one of its defects.”
In pursuit of a short, brisk read, Parrett often uses the device of raising and then answering his own questions. They include: “How many whites were in the territory in 1864?” “What did land cost in 1864 as compared to now?” “How much did food and other sundries cost in the early 1860s in Montana?” and “How do Montanans in 2014 spend their leisure dollars?”
That discussion of leisure spending, by the way, includes a good, compact history of alcohol consumption, live music and gambling in Montana, a frontier state that has always enjoyed its rough pleasures.
After examining the changes and constants of the past 150 years in some detail, Parrett gets to the heart of the matter in a big-picture afterword.
“What makes Montana so immensely valuable,” he writes, “are all those things that you can’t put a price on—that comfort in relative solitude, that reassurance of knowing, as the little bumper sticker enjoins, you can still ‘get lost in Montana.’”
Above all, he says, in a world that grows more homogenous by the day and where “every street in America looks the same in an unfamiliar way,” we feel this “dislocation” less intensely in Montana because of our vast open spaces.
“Our story is so recent,” he says, “so shallow, that you hardly have to dig before reaching bedrock. Our proximity to the past here keeps us closer to each other than in other places, more in touch with 1864 than we might imagine.”
This article first appeared at Last Best News.