Prairie Lights: A shameful admission, 3 suggested reads


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

A very cool copy of a very old book.

Last weekend at Second Edition Books, a great used-book store in Uptown Butte, I purchased a copy of “The Vigilantes of Montana” by Prof. Thomas J. Dimsdale.

It’s an odd softcover edition, published in 1937 by McKee Printing Co. in Butte, with a cartoon-like illustration on the front cover. I was glad to have found such an unusual edition of a Montana classic.

So far, so good. Here’s the embarrassing part: I have never actually read “The Vigilantes of Montana,” the first book published in Montana Territory, way back in 1865.

I don’t know how to account for this oversight. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for almost 40 years, but somehow I have never gotten around to it. That’s partly why I liked finding this oddball edition: I figured it would help induce me to finally read it.

Now that I have admitted this shameful fact, I thought I should do something to mitigate my shame. That something is this: I will encourage others to read some of my favorite Montana books, three books that I think may have been neglected in the same way that I have neglected to read Dimsdale.


Ed Kemmick

I’ll start with “Born to Be,” the autobiography of Taylor Gordon, published in 1929 when he was only 36 years old. At the time he was a famous singer, but he barely touches on that aspect of his life.

Mostly it is a tale of growing up black in a much earlier America. When he was born in 1893 in White Sulphur Springs, his was the only African American family in that surprisingly lively burg, to which he pays this extravagant compliment: “If God ever did spend any time here on earth, that must have been His hang-out, for every little thing that’s natural and beautiful to live with is around White Sulphur.”

He writes of serving as an errand boy and courier for women on “the sporting line.” I don’t know if he ever states what the population of White Sulphur Springs was at the time, but it had at least five brothels, one of which he says employed 12 women.

Gordon eventually lights out for the big world, helped along by his association with John Ringling, of the Ringling Brothers’ circus fame, whom he worked for as a porter on Ringling’s private rail car. But Montanans will be most interested in his descriptions of life in White Sulphur, with its gamblers and sharps, prostitutes, cowboys, murderers and Chinese merchants.

Despite all his success and heady friendships with the rich and famous, Gordon eventually returned to White Sulphur Springs and lived there with his sister until his death in 1971. He says several times in his autobiography that he never experienced prejudice until he left his hometown, and at the very end of the book he had this to say about White Sulphur:

“When I think of the marvelous people I have met, and of my happy childhood days, free to associate with many nationalities, colors and creeds without being classed as an obnoxious Indian lover or Chinese lover, and that they have been free to associate with whom they chose, including myself, without being thrown out as a Nigger lover, I say to myself, What a lucky bird I am to have been laid on top of the Rocky Mountains.”

From the colorful yarns about pleasant White Sulphur, we turn to another book published in 1929, Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest.”

Hammett, who worked as a Pinkerton detective in Butte during its most intense period of labor violence, sets his tale in Butte, fictionalized as Personville but referred to by everyone as Poisonville.

The world of Poisonville is so far removed from White Sulphur Springs that it might as well exist in a separate universe. And as strange as it may sound about a book written more than 80 years ago, it is downright shocking. It is a detective novel, in a way, but it is a world removed from the mere violence and depravity depicted by James Lee Burke and other modern crime novelists.

Their books play out in a world we are all accustomed to, where morality still exists, no matter how immoral some of the characters might be. In “Red Harvest,” morality has no place. There is not the faintest hint that anyone is worried about Judgment Day, much less a guilty conscience or the corrosive effects of nonstop violence.

The Coen Brothers came up with the title of their first movie, “Blood Simple,” from this book. The narrator, a detective known as the Continental Op, tells another character that he is about to become blood-simple, by which he means the equivalent of a Viking berserker, so overcome with blood-lust that he can only go on mindlessly killing.

A lot of people in Butte believe that Hammett, as a Pinkerton man, had a hand in the brutal murder of Frank Little, the Wobbly organizer. I used to think that was implausible: how could a man who went on to be such a distinguished author have taken part in something so awful?

After reading “Red Harvest,” the possibility seemed a lot more plausible. This is a book that will freeze the blood in your veins.

As an antidote to the bottomless cynicism of “Red Harvest,” I would recommend one of the loveliest books about Montana ever published.

This one, too, is an autobiography, “When Montana and I Were Young: A Frontier Childhood” by Margaret “Peggy” Bell. She wrote this book, originally a huge collection of disjointed fragments, way back in the 1940s, but it was not published until 2002, by the University of Nebraska Press.

The publishing history itself is fascinating—some of the leading lights of Montana literature fell in love with it but despaired of editing it into any kind of shape—but you don’t need to know that history to love the book.

Bell narrates a childhood of almost unbearable cruelty at the hands of her stepfather, Hedge Wolfe, possibly the most hateful character I’ve ever encountered in print. You will wince and squirm many times while reading this, appalled that anyone could treat children so terribly.

What redeems it is the unfailingly optimistic attitude of little Peggy, whose saintlike perseverance ultimately makes her a hundred times stronger than her sadistic stepfather. She will restore your faith in humanity even while she makes you think that anything you’ve ever suffered was trifling by comparison.

“It is one of the unsolved mysteries of my life,” she says of her mother, “how she could have loved such a man.”

She hardly goes further than that in criticizing her stepfather, rightly believing that her painfully straightforward account of his depredations needs no editorializing.

Peggy survives and thrives by her devotion to hard work, immersing herself in every sort of labor available on a farm or in a homestead. She is especially adept at working with animals, and after you’ve read the book it will break your heart just to look at the photograph of her on the dust jacket, leaning back against a calf, a big smile on her face.

I can’t recommend all three of these books highly enough. Meanwhile, since I’m 10 or 12 books behind on my reading list, I don’t know when I’ll finally get to “The Vigilantes of Montana,” but when I do I’ll report back.

And if anyone reads the books I’ve recommended and wants to drop me a line, why, I’d be honored.

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