Before reading Sid Gustafson’s new novel, “Swift Dam,” the only thing I’d seen of his was a short story in the winter 2015-16 edition of The Montana Quarterly.
The story was uncommonly good, but I didn’t even recall reading it until I had finished this novel. What really prompted me to pick up “Swift Dam” was my fascination with the Gustafson family.
The first family member I encountered, decades ago, was Sid’s brother Erik, a wildly talented musician and one-man band whose stage name is Erik “Fingers” Ray.
Then I read a book by the Gustafson patriarch, R.W. “Rib” Gustafson, a veterinarian, rancher, cowboy poet and singer. “Room to Roam: More Tales of a Montana Veterinarian” was a short, fun romp, a memoir full of hard-won wisdom and broad humor.
And then I became aware of another of Sid’s siblings, Wylie, the warbling bass player who fronts the band Wylie and the Wild West Show and who is the originator of the Yahoo yodel.
I had already thought that maybe the Gustafson clan was the most interesting family in Montana, and now here’s Sid, also a veterinarian, a contributor to the New York Times and novelist and short-story writer.
I have since learned of two more siblings. The one daughter of Rib and his wife, Patricia, is Kristen Juras, the attorney and law school professor now running for the Montana Supreme Court. The fourth son is Barr, also a veterinarian and operator of the family ranch near Conrad.
Sid, who lives in Big Sky, told me he became tone deaf as a result of a childhood illness, and he thinks he may have taken up writing, one of the silent arts, as a way of compensating for that loss. Whatever impelled him, he is an accomplished, engaging storyteller who writes with a kind of restrained passion.
This is almost a mystery novel. When it opens, Pondera County Sheriff Bird Oberly fields a 4 a.m. phone call from the son of veterinarian Alphonse “Fingers” (yes, that’s partly a nod to Erik) Vallerone. The son wants the sheriff to go looking for his father, who hasn’t returned from a drive into the mountains that had begun the previous day.
Oberly, much younger than Vallerone but a good friend of his, isn’t worried, knowing that the old vet had taken many such “moondrives” over the years, some of them stretching into days. But, under the hectoring of the son, Oberly begins looking into the doctor’s supposed disappearance.
Once the novel is tipped into action, however, there is hardly any action to speak of. Most of the rest of the book consists of stories and recollections about Vallerone’s past, as told and remembered by Oberly and Dr. Vallerone.
The main thing we learn of him is his infatuation with Swift Dam, especially with the first Swift Dam, on the southern end of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which failed during heavy rains in 1964. The flooding killed at least 28 Blackfeet.
Sid knows the land intimately. He said his father used to take his sons, on horseback, into the wilderness beyond the dam, and for three years after the flood, until a new dam was built, they would ride through the wasteland scoured by the floodwaters, then through the cleft where the dam had stood.
In the novel, Vallerone recalls spending days riding along Birch Creek after the flood, taking care of animals that survived, looking for bodies and tending to the people who lived through the disaster.
Rib did that, too, Sid said, but there the facts end and the fiction kicks in. The mystery springs from what Vallerone discovered in the wake of the great flood, and what he goes back to find 50 years to the day after the disaster.
There is very little straight detective work on the part of the sheriff, just the piecing together of history, rumor and recollection. There is also the mystery of Vallerone’s black bag, which he always carries into the hills, and around which speculation swirls.
The guts of the book are the ruminations of Oberly and Vallerone on life, love and mortality. Vallerone, apparently subject to some kind of sleep disorder, has trouble keeping his dreams separate from real life, or disentangling real history from myth and misremembrance.
The point seems to be that we all are disordered when we try to reconstruct the past, that we all live to some extent in a waking dream.
The book is also full of veterinary particulars, which might sound dry but are anything but. Vallerone is an old-fashioned healer who does much of his diagnosis and doctoring with his hands—hence the nickname “Fingers”—and who is a proponent of the Blackfeet way of raising and caring for horses.
Sid, who in his own practice specializes in the care of thoroughbred race horses, goes into loving detail about the proper care of livestock, and he takes several detours to damn the damage done to animals by modern ranching techniques and the scourge of using drugs to treat every ailment.
Sid writes of veterinary medicine, and much else, with a poetic voluptuousness, as in this description of the aftermath of a cesarean birth: “The new mother heaves a sigh of relief as the calf exits her incised womb. Doc elevates the calf to drain her wet lungs, and lays the neonate out and revives the baby, too long inside. He clamps her umbilicus to make her inhale, and inhale the little creature does, taking in first air, continuing to inhale, gestating nine months to inhale. Fingers threads his needle with catgut suture and the newborn sits to her sternum and issues a faint bawl. He stitches the mother back together, the newborn flapping her ears, stars singing hallelujah.”
Sid also knows the Blackfeet, whom he grew up around up on the family ranch. He writes of Blackfeet past and present with a clear understanding of the indignities they have suffered, but also with an unsentimental appreciation of what they might teach those who care to listen.
One important lesson is the persistence and power of water, which can be dammed and obstructed only temporarily and always wins in the end. Like Norman Maclean, the people in this book are haunted by waters.
Toward the end of the book, Vallerone “watches the new dam through the drizzle, his bones pained by the rain, joints in need of ambulation. He walks, walks to lubricate his joints, to stiffen his bones, to condition his muscles. He knows locomotion is the key to longevity. To keep living, one must keep moving. All of the animals taught him that to move is to live. All becomes dependent on locomotion in the end. When you stop moving, you stop living. When the water stops flowing, all is over.”
True words, for sure. The Gustafson children lost both their parents in the past few years, but Sid and his his siblings don’t seem to be slowing down in the least.
Bonus link: Go here for an unusually detailed review of “Swift Dam,” by a reader with a deep understanding of the land and the author.