Trigger warning for discussion of child and sexual abuse.
Reading Waltzing Montana, by Mary Clearman Blew, felt like recovering from an injury. I realize that this is a strange way to describe a book, but it’s the closest I can come to explaining the good ache I felt while reading it. This is not a pan of the book, either. Reading this book felt good, even if parts of it were painful. Really, this book felt like the sometimes painful ache we feel when we’re healing because those painful parts are tempered by the hope that the characters will one day be well.
Mildred Harrington and Adams are Montana’s version of star-crossed lovers. Their fathers detested each other and did their best to keep them apart, especially when they fell in love with each other as teenagers. We don’t learn until later what actually happened to finally separate them for years. Pat went to join the army at the outbreak of World War I. Mildred and a nun did battle with Mildred’s father so that she could get an education. It isn’t until more than ten years later, in 1925, that they see each other again. That meeting, right at the beginning of Waltzing Montana, happens when Mildred and her horse stumble across a badly injured Pat on her way home from helping to deliver a baby.
Waltzing Montana is a slow burn, with a lot of melancholy looks from all of the characters who take turns narrating the story. Through the perspectives of Mildred, Pat, the new priest, the nun who helped Mildred get an education, and Renny, a Métis man who has worked for the Harrington family for years, we gradually learn about all the water that has passed under the bridge. We learn about feuds, cattle husbandry, fire management, and more about life in Montana in the first quarter of the twentieth century. We also see Pat and Mildred come slowly back to each other. We know it’s inevitable. Everyone in the story except for Pat and Mildred knows it’s inevitable. We just need to wait for Mildred and Pat to heal from their painful pasts.
I really enjoyed reading Waltzing Montana. It was beautifully paced, low and slow, and seasoned with plenty of honest humor to keep the whole thing from being depressing. It doesn’t shy away from the harshness of frontier life or the lingering shadow of how indigenous people were treated by whites for most (some would argue, all) of America’s history. It also doesn’t shy away from how anger is a poison that corrodes everything about it until it is dismissed by love and affection.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.