Stories like a bale unrolling: a review of Conjugations of the Verb To Be

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Conjugations of the Verb To Be
Glen Chamberlain
193 pages, softcover: $11.95.
Delphinium Press, September.

The fictional ranching town of Buckle in eastern Montana is the setting for Bozeman writer Glen Chamberlain's short-story collection Conjugations of the Verb To Be. The stories, though independent, are skillfully intertwined; the lives of the characters overlap and intermingle in the many ordinary ways necessitated by life in any small town. This is one of the book's great charms, piecing together the various histories of the town through the eyes of its disparate inhabitants. Chamberlain works like a cameraman, slowly pulling back until the entire valley is revealed and Buckle -- hayfield by hayfield, generation after generation -- materializes out of the early morning fog.

"Stacking," arguably the central story, is a three-part Garden of Eden fable that follows the lives of two families over three generations, including three successive Emma Orchards and their relationships with the farming family across the river, the Awns. Anyone who has lived in a small town will recognize the silences and forbidden conversations, the curiosity and hate, the lust and forbidden love that build up between families and neighbors over the years.

These intelligent stories unfold at the pace of rural life itself. Ultimately, Conjugations is about place: In 11 quiet gems, Chamberlain has captured rural Montana. Conjugations should be read not only for its underlying wisdom, but also for its sentences, the cadence and roll of the language. Describing the hydraulic spear on a tractor and spreading hay, Chamberlain writes, "Like a spindle it would go through the center of the hay spool and, when he was ready to feed, the hay would unroll like a green-and-blue Persian rug -- a long colorful runner sprinkled with blue alfalfa blossoms in a monochromatic winter room in which the cattle lived."

Chamberlain's characters are full of questions, self-doubt and compassion. Conjugations, like that bale unrolling, is a slowly revealed whole -- substantial and nourishing.

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