Egan hits just the right notes in ‘Montana 1889’

In the preface to “The Bible in Spain” by George Borrow, the strangely engrossing book I am now reading, Borrow begins like this:

“It is very seldom that the preface of a work is read; indeed, of late years, most books have been sent into the world without any. I deem it, however, advisable to write a preface, and to this I humbly call the attention of the courteous reader, as its perusal will not a little tend to the proper understanding and appreciation of this volume.”

For the same reason, I would humbly recommend that readers of Ken Egan Jr.’s latest work of history, “Montana 1889,”  do not make the mistake of skipping over his introduction.

It always annoys me when contemporary writers harp on the moral deficiencies of historical figures, as if it were a difficult thing to enumerate how people in the past fell short of our own manifest perfection.

In the introduction to “Montana 1889,” Egan explains that his own approach to history is to be alive to the world as it was lived in by the people he is writing about. He mentions the Crow Chief Plenty Coups, who had to make difficult choices regarding how to live amid a rapidly encroaching foreign culture.

The choices Plenty Coups made, Egan says, “might at first blush be labeled ‘collaborationist,’ or even defeatist.” He continues:

“Yet how arrogant to make that casual charge, typing on a computer and sipping coffee in a house built on Salish land, never having faced the extreme deprivation and soul-killing reality of the early reservation, the life source erased, the defining customs of a life debarred, the power to control one’s destiny denied, one’s own language ridiculed.”

Egan

Ken Egan Jr.

In the final passage of the introduction, he explains his approach even more explicitly: “Writing history calls forth empathy, then, a willingness to feel outside one’s skin to inhabit, briefly and incompletely, the lived experience of human beings negotiating terrain they could barely glimpse, let alone understand and control.”

Egan, executive director of Humanities Montana, published a similar book, “Montana 1864,” in 2014. Like this new book, that earlier one dealt with a pivotal year of Montana history by presenting, month by month, a narrative of important events and key historical figures.

This time, however, Egan has dropped the intermittent passages of creative nonfiction, dramatic scenes based on historical events but presented in the guise of fictional vignettes. He said he dropped that device at the suggestion of several other historians he consulted.

It was a good idea, giving the reader less to sort out while preserving, thanks to Egan’s broad-minded empathy and his solid historical research, a strong sense of story and a feel for the characters who inhabited our past.

There are many characters in these 260 pages, and, as you would expect, some of the people in “1864,” the year Montana became a territory, show up again in “1889,” the year it became a state. But in addition to familiar names like Plenty Coups, Marcus Daly, Charlie Russell, Theodore Roosevelt, Nannie Alderson and Granville Stuart, we are introduced to many little-known ones, too.

Egan to appear at This House of Books

Ken Egan Jr. will read from and discuss his new book, “Montana 1889: Indians, Cowbys, and Miners in the Year of Statehood,” at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, at This House of Books, 224 N. Broadway.

The book’s subtitle is telling: “Indians, Cowboys, and Miners in the Year of Statehood.” By transposing the phrase “cowboys and Indians,” Egan subtly announces that he intends to give Native Americans their due, and then some, and he delivers, going deeply into what it must have felt like to have seen 1889 through Indian eyes.

He writes achingly of Charlo, chief of the Bitterroot Salish, who finally gives in to 20 years of pressure from the Americans and on Nov. 3, 1889, agrees to remove his people from the Bitterroot Valley to the Jocko Valley. But first he says, in despair and defiance:

“I will go — I and my children. My young men are becoming bad; they have no place to hunt. My women are hungry. For their sake I will go. I do not want the land you promise. I do not believe in your promises. All I want is enough ground for my grave. We will go over there.”

He also writes of Deaf Bull, a Crow chief who mistrusted the tribe’s Indian agent as deeply as he mistrusted Plenty Coups, and who led 150 warriors in resistance to coercive attempts to “civilize” the Indians. He eventually comes around to Plenty Coups’ point of view, but like Charlo, at tremendous cost.

My one small quibble with the book is that Deaf Bull appears in it by dint of having been released from prison in August 1889, while his acts of rebellion actually occurred two years earlier. A few other characters are similarly shoehorned into the chronological narrative. These instances feel a bit forced, but they are only minor distractions.

What does not feel forced are Egan’s attempts to tell our neglected history. He manages to draw the broad outlines of the history embalmed in conventional historical works, but fleetingly and obliquely, giving him more time to introduce people we might not have heard of, or know much less well.

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We meet Mary Gleeson Gleim, “reigning madam of Missoula’s underworld, a dealer in opiates, diamonds, Chinese laborers, and women of the night,” and we meet Dr. Huie Pock, “a charismatic, influential Chinese doctor” who wages a long court fight against the whites-only labor unions that organized a boycott of Chinese-owned businesses in Butte.

We also meet Pamela Fergus, whose “hard work, devotion to family, and agnosticism” were summarized at her funeral by Wilbur Sanders, who said, in part: “While she could not understand how she could live after death, or locate a heaven or a hell, she clearly comprehended the duties appertaining to her station in life and in their performances was an obedient child, a faithful wife, a loving mother, a true friend and an honest woman.”

Montana in 1889 was, all things considered, a pretty rough place, full of meanness, cruelty, racism and misery, but if the people who lived in those times disappoint us in their shortcomings, they can also awe us with their resiliency, their industry and their amazing strength of will.

Egan said he wasn’t sure what work of Montana history might come next. He said he had given some thought to looking at another important year, 1914, which also happened to be the year his grandmother took up a homestead in northeastern Montana, but lately he has been infatuated with Frank Linderman, the biographer of Plenty Coups whom Egan describes in this book as “strangely undervalued in Montana folklore.”

Here’s hoping he turns his hand to 1914 and to Frank Linderman, and to other aspects of Montana history as well. We can wait.

Details: “Montana 1889” was published by Riverbend Publishing in Helena. To buy a book, or for more information, go to the Riverbend website

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