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for people who care about the West

Mapping the Hi-Line: A review of Honyocker Dreams

 

Honyocker Dreams: Montana Memories
David Mogen
227 pages, hardcover: $21.95.
University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Colorado writer David Mogen grew up along Montana's Hi-Line, just below the Canadian border and east of the Rockies, as his father moved the family from one small town to the next. Honyocker Dreams begins with Mogen's return to the Hi-Line many years later, after he has become a tenured English professor and his father is diagnosed with cancer. On a road trip through Montana to Idaho, the sick man recalls his harsh life in the region: riding five miles to school on horseback only to have his frozen fingers beaten with a ruler, earning money as a cowboy so he could move to town to finish high school. After his father's death, Mogen wanders the Hi-Line looking for places to fly-fish. But he is also fishing for stories, in search of the roots of his family and culture: "My father was a teacher and school administrator, but he had grown up as a cowboy. My mother was a nurse and housewife, but she had grown up as a homesteader."

One of six children, Mogen depicts his childhood and coming of age in the '50s in a variety of tiny, rural farming towns. Eventually, he becomes a student at Columbia University in New York City. He relates how out of place he must have seemed to his fellow students: " 'You should go downtown with Mogen,' I overheard one of my new acquaintances say a few days later. 'He stares at skyscrapers.' "

Mogen's tales have an enchanting rhythm, and his specialty in frontier studies helps him illuminate a geographic region much less known to outsiders than the western side of the state. Honyocker Dreams, like many memoirs, describes a young man's coming of age and the impacts of a parent's death, but it transcends the present and personal as the author tries to track down and understand his frontier ancestors. What sets Honyocker Dreams apart is its vivid focus on what it's like to be an outsider: a descendant of Honyockers, Eastern Europeans who settled the Great Plains, always the new kid, a Montanan in New York, and later on, a Coloradan returning to visit "the last, best place." His book's structure, though at times confusing, mimics the way we come to know our own place in the world: a journey filled with detours and surprises.