Dancing to Biederbecke in Montana

by N P Thompson

In his first novel, Montana memoirist William Kittredge serves up a simmering potboiler, a deliberately old-fashioned stew rich with The-Summer-I-Became-a-Man mythology and a poor boy/rich girl romance.

The mother of The Willow Field’s protagonist, Rossie Benasco, runs a sort of halfway house in Reno for divorcées: "By the time his voice changed, Rossie had seen more than one woman weep because a cowboy hadn’t come around to say goodbye."

Soon the 15-year-old Rossie hits the trail himself, herding horses from California to Calgary during the Depression-era 1930s. The novel follows this half-Basque Nevada native, inarticulate and untutored, through sundry rites of passage — from bedroom conquests, to that first underage sip of a double martini, to the gunning down of a "velvet-horned" buck.

Readers with delicate sensibilities should be forewarned that nearly every character on these hard sod prairies has a foul mouth; even Kittredge’s womenfolk do not blush to bandy terms that are sexually graphic and scatologically precise.

Much of the story takes place in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains, where Rossie marries Eliza Stevenson, the daughter of two ex-Chicagoans who have fled academe for life on a ranch. The novel’s sharpest exchanges center on Eliza’s wealthy parents, Bernard and Lemma. Good neurotic energy pulses not far below the surface of their polite façades. Bernard nourishes himself by claiming a kinship to Robert Louis Stevenson, and he introduces Rossie to Krazy Kat cartoons and hot jazz. Kittredge uses the music of the day to entrancing effect: The Willow Field is at its most pleasing when everyone ceases swearing and simply dances the night away to Bix Beiderbecke or Earl Hines.


The Willow Field

William Kittredge

342 pages, hardcover: $24.95.

Knopf, 2006

 

© High Country News