Writer David James Duncan left Portland for Missoula and promptly became obsessed. It wasn't supposed to work that way. The author of The River Why and The Brothers K had come to Montana to write his next novel and do some fishing, alongside other authors who have turned the "last best place" into the most-written-about place.
Instead, the threat to
the Blackfoot River took Duncan over. He had known that might
happen, and had tried to avoid the river. But in the end, the
Blackfoot won. And now, he says, it is hard for him to write about
"It was too much for me to be
quietly writing my novel. I stopped working. It was a comedy novel
and I needed a certain blitheness of spirit." Instead, he has spent
his time working on an anti-mine opinion piece for the New York
Times and a lengthy essay on the threat to the
You get the feeling in Montana that
the novelists really wanted to be activists but they were blessed
with this annoying talent for words. They would rather be
protesting. And the Blackfoot River is their cause.
This became clear when writer and 24-year
Blackfoot Valley resident Annick Smith decided to publish
Headwaters, a book of essays, poems and stories about the Blackfoot
River, to influence the debate on the McDonald Mine. Within two
weeks she had received 49 submissions from Montana writers who had
already written about the Blackfoot, or knew it with enough passion
to whip something up fast and for free.
contribution to the book: a tale of Norman Maclean going on strike
in purgatory when he hears that mortals want to mine the Blackfoot
while he is stuck on the long, slow trek to paradise. Other writers
include Rick Bass, William Kittredge and Ian
Smith planned to deliver Headwaters to
every state legislator. But as the books were being distributed,
state Rep. John Mercer became alarmed. He noticed that a drunk
character says "fuck" three times. Mercer thought it inappropriate
for the book to be given away, and the sergeant-at-arms locked it
up. This generated more publicity than the unbanned book would ever
have received. Smith found herself doing radio interviews and
speaking at book fairs until she ran out of copies.
Still, Smith wonders if the book was effective:
Given the competition from television and direct mail, "I don't
know if old-fashioned storytelling can have any effect." But, she
says, writers are mythmakers, and the Blackfoot is the most
mythical river. She calls the book "a gift from the writers of
Montana to the people of Montana."