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Know the West

In a small Montana town, there’s a thing with feathers. Hope? Not so much.

Maxim Loskutoff’s debut novel explores the fraught history of the Bitterroot Valley.

 

In the foothills of the Sapphire Mountains in southwestern Montana, elk are bleeding. Some are dead. Others are still alive, torn by bullets, their panicked eyes searching the landscape for a way to escape. This bloodbath was caused by hunters: A few are locals who understand the “communion between hunter and prey,” but others are “weekenders in from Missoula” who have no respect for the land. Instead of rifles, they carry military-grade AKs and bump-stocked AR-15s. Ruthie Fear, the protagonist of Maxim Loskutoff’s eponymous novel, belongs to the first group, but the carnage around her keeps her from focusing; when she finally shoots, she has no idea whether her bullet has found its target. Ruthie thinks the weekenders are ruining everything, changing the landscape and forever altering life in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. In his gritty debut novel, Loskutoff explores the dissolution of a mill town whose mill has shuttered, ultimately suggesting that in this destruction may be a tortured form of renewal.

Ruthie is white, an only child who lives with her father in a dilapidated trailer. On the surface, Ruthie Fear is a coming-of-age story that explores poverty, violence and death. But below that surface lies an examination of the shifting demographics of western Montana, where a largely white, working-class community is being displaced by tourists and second homeowners. Gentrification is at the core of this novel, and Loskutoff shows how it aggravates class resentment: People loathe the new mansions and condos, the weekend visitors and city hunters. At the same time, the book questions the idea of the rugged, individualistic, white rural Westerner. In Ruthie’s world, under-employed men hunt for food and dream of a day when society collapses and the rich must “beg for help,” even as their own world slowly implodes, from poverty and climate change — and supernatural forces.

The reviled wealthy newcomers’ arrival forces the locals to consider their own situations more critically. Most families in the novel struggle with unemployment, inadequate nutrition and poverty, but those privations don’t become enraging until rich city people appear, flaunting their wealth, buying up land and changing local customs — bringing gigantic automatic weapons to places where locals occasionally still hunt with bow and arrow. “They keep taking things from me. My pond, my woods, my view. It’s likely they won’t stop until there’s nothing left,” Rutherford, Ruthie’s father, tells her. She reminds him that she’s still there. Rutherford later gets arrested for destroying construction equipment.

The sheriff tells Rutherford, “I know you see this property and all the woods around it and most everything else in this valley as yours, but it’s not. And when these big-money people come in, they don’t take kindly to their investments getting fucked with.”

Loskutoff challenges his white characters’ ideas about land rights. Ruthie’s neighbors clearly feel that they own the landscape their ancestors stole from Indigenous peoples. They blame the newer residents for many things, but when an earthquake hits, the locals attribute it to an “ancient Native American curse” that Loskutoff invents, “Charlo’s curse,” named after Chief Charlo, who led Salish resistance to their forced removal from the Bitterroot Valley by the U.S. government. Rutherford rolls his eyes at his neighbors’ ignorance, even as his Salish best friend, Terry, mocks him for being upset at the newcomers for fencing off the land that Rutherford’s family has used for generations.

“They keep taking things from me. My pond, my woods, my view. It’s likely they won’t stop until there’s nothing left.” 

Yet Loskutoff also perpetuates a romantic idea of the disappeared Native American, writing about Salish peoples in the same way that he describes disappeared wildlife, equating Indigenous genocide with environmental degradation. “The valley’s inhabitants had done everything they could to domesticate its hillsides and riverbanks. Fence it into squares and pave roads between those squares. Slaughter the bears and wolves and mountain lions and bison. Drive out the Salish. Nail crosses to the hilltops. Yet still the wildness encroached,” Loskutoff writes. Terry is the only man Rutherford trusts with his daughter, but the friendship is weighed down by symbolism: At times, the novel seems to equate gentrification with the trauma of genocide. 

Even as working-class families find themselves displaced by rich vacationers, they contend with the environmental damage of the industries that they followed to the region. They also distrust the research lab on the edge of town. Loskutoff embodies these scattered, complex threats in the form of a nightmarish creature that Ruthie encounters in the woods.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.8/south-what-works-the-housing-policy-thats-turning-back-gentrification]

One day while she’s out with her dog, Ruthie sees a tall, feathered, headless creature that moves toward the creek on insect-like legs. The apparition becomes an obsession. Years later, she explains to a lover how she hated it, how the bizarre creature made her think of “pollution and all the horrible things” she was learning about in school. As ever more people move to town, Ruthie wonders if the creature she saw long ago was “a premonition, a ghost image of what was to come,” even as she questions her own instinctive hatred of something she can’t understand. In an unexpectedly apocalyptic ending, Ruthie finds evidence that the creature wasn’t a single aberration, but rather a symbol of how far her town truly is from the idyllic wilderness she imagines it to be.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, book reviewer, editor, professor and translator living in Austin, Texas. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.