Ten Tough Trips
Montana Writers and the WestBook - 1990
"There is something special about the land, as anyone with a whole car and half a heart can see," writes William Bevis in the introduction to Ten Tough Trips . The Land is the Inland West, particularly Montana, and the trips are literary journeys made by ten writers ranging from James Fenimore Cooper to James Welch. In a series of lucid and witty essays, Bevis uses their works to explore the conflict between the mythic West of European yearnings--a natural paradise free of all civilized constraints--and the real complications and austerities of Montana.
Though widely different in background and perspective, the authors in this book are linked by a common landscape, and even more by their desire to speak truthfully about it. A.B. Guthrie, Jr., who grew up in Choteau, Montana, wrote "The Big Sky" in part to refute the fantasies of the Hollywood western. The nineteenth-century memoirs of Andrew Garcia, a trapper, and Nannie Alderson, a homesteader, provide an instructive mixture of popular mythology and contradictory personal experience. In the hands of Ivan Doig and Norman Maclean, Montanans of later generations, memories and landscape combine to become art.
The renaissance of Native American writing, including the rediscovery of works by Frank Linderman and D'Arcy McNickle and the rise of authors like James Welch, has helped to redefine the West while opening a new world to white audiences. Bevis also uses the perspectives of modern Indian readers to help ferret out the mythic remnants in "The Big Sky" and other works.
The combined effect of these authors and Bevis's commentary is to present a regionalism that is not quaint or escapist, but sophisticated and realistic. the "wild and free" Indians of the north plains are revealed as members of a highly structured community of humanity and animals. The rugged individualists who homesteaded the state were the beneficiaries (and sometimes the victims) of political decisions far beyond their control. The classless pride of the West turns out to hide a nagging feeling of inferiority, a conflict memorably explored in the poems of Richard Hugo. The love of the land, on the other hand, becomes more durable and more haunting as the myths are stripped away.
As personal and passionate as the works it treats, this book is more than a commentary. Bevis's own distinctive voice is a welcome addition to the literature of the West.