Montana's army of writers tested the power of the pens

  • David James Duncan, one of Montana's authors

    Heather Abel photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

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 anything else.

"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 Blackfoot.

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.

Duncan's 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 Frazier.

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."

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