BY DILLON TABISH
“A strange and powerful landscape summons strange and powerful happenings.”
That ominous line juts out of Rick Bass’ new novel like a scintillating tagline. It holds a striking significance in the West, where the mountains and rivers often exist like wild characters in the everyday lives of the region.
Any book worth reading respects the landscape as a character of importance.
As one of the preeminent environmental voices living and working in the West, Bass certainly does in each of his works.
His latest novel is no exception, along with the three others listed here. Each in their own unique ways, these four authors craft compelling narratives and characters that don’t just walk over the land, they walk among it.
All the Land to Hold Us by Rick Bass
It would likely surprise many people that Rick Bass was once a petroleum engineer. Yes, the same man arrested near the White House in February during a protest against the Keystone pipeline spent a portion of his life searching for oil in his homeland of Texas. Bass would eventually change vocations and move to the mountains of the Yaak Valley in Northwest Montana, where he’s become one of the great authors living and writing about the West.
Bass’ latest work, a 336-page novel released in August, returns to his roots in many ways. It’s set against the harsh backdrop of West Texas and features a geologist hired to find the great modern treasure: oil.
Don’t worry — Bass is not here to preach from an activist’s soapbox. He’s a better writer than that. Instead, he offers dramatic intensity and fantastical elements that shape a sweeping tale of human desire, endangered nature and indelibly the pursuit of love.
This is subject material that’s right in Bass’ wheelhouse, and worthy of exploring.
Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water and the Burial of an American Landscape by Brad Tyer
Brad Tyer, another Texan and the son of an engineer who reclaimed wastewater, journeyed to Montana a decade ago, tempted by the state’s mythic identity as “The Last Best Place.” As an avid paddler, he enjoyed the state’s scenic rivers before encountering the Clark Fork River near the former mining haven of Anaconda. What he discovered was a befouled waterway clotted with a century’s worth of industrial poison, unhealed scars from another era. While working as editor of the Missoula Independent, Tyer researched the history and lives that surrounded the forgotten town of Opportunity. In the end he weaved together the toxic environmental legacy of Western Montana with memoir details of his rocky relationship with his late father. The result was the superbly written 248-page nonfiction book published last March.
Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig
At 74, Ivan Doig is still in his literary prime. The classic Montana writer, born in White Sulphur Springs in a family of homesteaders, has churned out his 12th novel, published in August. It’s the third book that follows the antics of Morrie Morgan, a con man who gave up the hustle to become a librarian. In the winter of 1920, Morgan lands back in Butte fresh off his honeymoon and discovers the town and its residents are under the ruthless control of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Morgan is catapulted into a new career yet again, this time as an editor for a new union newspaper, the Thunder. In true Doig fashion, Sweet Thunder features a memorable cast of characters and high drama on the Montana landscape.
Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America’s Great Forests by Andrew Nikiforuk
Thirty billion pine and spruce trees, from Alaska to New Mexico, have vanquished since 1980 in the outbreak of bark beetles. As Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk states in the introduction to his nonfiction book, “It may well be the greatest forest die-off recorded since industrious peasant communities deforested much of northern Europe between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.” Using the bark beetle as the book’s main character, he delves into the heated, thorny subject of modern forestry and how, “the place Wallace Stegner once called ‘the geography of hope,’ has fallen to the empire of the beetle.”