Russell Rowland’s new work of nonfiction is an altogether beguiling book, but also a strange one that is impossible to pigeonhole.
Given its title, I was expecting something of a travel narrative, a rambling tour that would take the reader to each of the 56 county seats, offering descriptions of the surroundings and a look at a local character or two.
Instead, “Fifty-Six Counties” is an extended essay that is part history, part memoir and part travelogue. It is about Montana, of course, but it is almost more about a native son coming to terms with a state that he is really getting to know for the first time in his life.
Rowland’s love for Montana is confirmed by his travels, but it is not the blithe love of a tourist getting all starry-eyed over majestic mountains or the allure of our supposedly very large sky.
It is a love that endures despite all the faults laid bare in works of history and an unblinking examination of contemporary Montana. Rowland dwells on the rampant violence in the early days of mineral-rich Western Montana, and the lonely despair of homesteading days in Eastern Montana.
He writes of the high rate of suicide, the widespread alcoholism, the anger in small towns struggling to stay alive, an anger he describes as “a strong, powerful poison.” Above all, he writes with passion of the shameful subjugation of the state’s original inhabitants and the lingering prejudice against their descendants.
It is telling that one of the longer extracts in the book is from a memoir written by Steven Norton Van Blaricom, who lived in Glendive in the late 1800s and called Dawson and Custer counties “graveyards for the burial of lost hopes and failed dreams.” He also wrote that it was “an absolute tragedy that the white people ever invaded Eastern Montana.”
And yet Rowland’s love for the place only deepens. It is like the love of family, which can be strong not only in spite of but because of all the bad memories and painful associations that usually come with family, as opposed to puppy love, or falling in love based on physical attributes alone.
Some people are less than welcoming and some towns leave a sour taste in Rowland’s mouth, but in general he ratifies a notion that we all want to believe, that the people here are generally good and welcoming and even tolerant. Toward the end of his ambivalent description of Billings, where he has lived for the past 10 years, Rowland enumerates the best things this city has to offer, ending with this: “And the people. Well, they’re Montana people.”
I think this book is also aimed at Montana people. Out-of-staters unfamiliar with Montana could probably find much to entertain and enlighten them, but this book is not really an introduction to the state. It is an exploration of what the state means to a native son, what it means to the other people he encounters on his journey.
It is also a book sure to stimulate arguments, not to mention ardent defenses of some of the slighted locales. I sometimes felt Rowland was being a bit hasty in his declarations. He might pay a short visit, his first visit, to some town and make a judgment on its tenor and its prospects based on a few encounters. God forbid he should be unlucky enough to run into the town grouch on his first stroll down Main Street.
But again, that’s part of what will make the book so interesting to Montanans. Don’t we all love to argue about the relative merits of Missoula and Bozeman, east and west, city and countryside, Billings vs. everyone else? I found myself sometimes arguing with Rowland in my head, sometimes congratulating him on his sagacity—for agreeing with me.
I ended up liking this book for its scattergun approach to its subject. As Rowland confesses in the afterword, “When I began this project, I had no idea what the final product would look like, or what themes would emerge. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to get to know Montana and its people in a more meaningful way.”
A bit later he says that he felt inclined to travel all over the state in “a whirlwind fashion so that I could experience it instinctively. I wanted to feel as if I was tapping into the spirit of Montana rather than getting lost in historical facts. I wanted to explore its heart rather than its chronology.”
The best parts of the book, the parts when he taps into that spirit and heart, are in his portraits of people who love the state but are impatient to do things in a new way.
We meet Jerry Sikorsky, who lives on a farm south of Baker on land his grandfather homesteaded in 1911. He is passionate about soil conservation, using no-till techniques, crop rotation and cover crops to make his farm as healthy as he can.
We also meet Jacob and Courtney Cowgill, a couple in their 30s who work a small organic farm near Power, mostly because they want to raise their kids as Courtney was raised. “That’s what drew me back,” she says, “the wind, the dirt, the food, the open space, the community, the freedom.”
And we meet Mandy Smoker Broaddus, who was born on the Fort Peck Reservation and is now the director of Indian Education for the state of Montana. After a long digression about her life, her accomplishments and her struggles, Rowland says this beautiful thing about her, and about us:
“Like so many Montanans, Mandy Smoker Broaddus finds a way to cling to some sense of hope that things will get better. Although her job brings her in contact with some of the most discouraging stories imaginable, and she gets overwhelmed with how much needs to be done, she has inherited the typical Montana attitude, where we see a bank of dark clouds as the promise of moisture.”
This article first appeared at Last Best News.