Montana stories migrated from oral traditions into print shortly after the good old Rugged Individualists found their way into the Montana Territory. Immigrants had to be sturdy if they wanted to stay around here. The weak ones died or moved on to a more forgiving environment. From pioneer journals to 21st-century novels, Montana literature is permeated with themes pulled from this challenging and splendid landscape.
Montana literature is rural. Even in stories where people live in towns (Perma Red and A River Runs Through It) most of the action happens outside. The literature and poetry of Montana is populated with people who are forced to deal with their problems without a lot of props. They have to use what's here: blizzards; animals, birds, and plants; lakes, rivers, and creeks; wildfires; and vast landscapes and skies.
Nature is a dominant character in Native American stories by James Welch, M. L. Smoker, Joe McGeshick, Debra Magpie Earling, and others. Judy Blunt and Elise Lavender* may view the landscape from opposite ends of the social spectrum, but their relationships to it define them. Rivers flow in and out of the lives of Louise White Elk and Paul Maclean, saturating their stories with unique meaning and symbolism. Severe Western weather challenges characters in Maile Meloy's short stories.
Although new immigrants, following the same old dreams of freedom and independence, continue to arrive, and the writers among them inject Montana literature and poetry with urban themes, nature still dominates: Melissa Kwasny ponders geese while thinking of Novalis; Casey Charles explores gay issues as he watches aspens shuffle in Pony; Karen Volkman brings the sea to Montana with a sonnet…
Ultimately, Montana literature mirrors the landscapes that give it life. It is sturdy, beautiful, thrilling, and heartbreaking in ways that take a master wordsmith to describe.
* Elise Lavender is a character in Deirdre McNamer's short story, "Virgin Everything." ( The New Montana Story: An Anthology, compiled and edited by Rick Newby)