Montana writer Swain Wolfe’s memoir, The Boy Who Invented Skiing, might be more aptly titled The Writer on His Way to Being An Alchemical Cartographer. Wolfe’s writing maps transformations, in a style both gritty and magical.

Wolfe was born in the hardscrabble West of the late 1930s. His boyhood was spent in the Colorado Springs tuberculosis sanatorium directed by his distant father, who in later years injected morphine and nicotine between his toes.

Wolfe’s eerily gorgeous evocation of the sanatorium is straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales ... emphasis on the grim. The reader becomes one with the little boy who explored dark and terrifying tunnels under the buildings — and rode the roller-coaster of his narcissistic mother’s whims.

His mother left his father and embarked with Swain and his neglect-damaged sister on a dude/hunter venture near Gunnison, Colo., and then on to a second marriage to a violent rancher.

Today, with luck and a Child Protective Agency, a boy who lived Swain Wolfe’s childhood would be hauled to hypothetical safety. Still, his writing never whines. His pain is evident, yet we are carried to understandings delivered with brutal grace.

Every slap, every uprooting forced young Swain to develop not just his observational gifts, but his own brand of hope. His teachers were cowboys and miners, drunks and hermits. Every hard case, every con man taught the kid something —- about killing to eat, making tools, setting a dynamite charge. He learned to pay attention, to walk out to the edge and stay steady — essential elements of craft for a true writer.

The skis? It is enough to say that the boy who invented skiing became a writer who could say in a recent interview, "I am Rarick Creek" (the wild stream that was his childhood universe) and make the reader believe it.

The Boy Who Invented Skiing
Swain Wolfe
287 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
St. Martin’s Press, 2006.