Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mary Clearman Blew, All But the Waltz

Montana Week continues at BITS with this fine collection of essays with accounts of four generations of the author's ancestors. First published in 1991, the book follows her family from their settlement in central Montana in the 19th century to the latter years of the 20th.

Pioneers of strong fortitude, originating in Pennsylvania, her father's family, the Hogelands, are among the first settlers along the headwaters of the Judith River. Good years, wise management, and a faith in the rewards of hard work serve them well - until the early death of the author's grandfather, followed by a decade of severe drought and then the Great Depression.

While half of the homesteaders around them go broke and move on, her family continues to scrape a living from the land. And the women on her mother's side of the family supplement their incomes with teaching in remote one-room country schools.

Hilger, Montana, photo by R Scheer © 2011
Reconstructing her family's story, she brings vividly to life her father and mother, grandmothers, aunts, and her great-grandparents. She deciphers and transcribes the writings of her great-grandfather Abraham, interviews living relatives, and studies family photographs, many of which are included in her book. 

While the primary theme of the book is the survival of her family, she also has much to say about the role of women, focusing on the circumstances that invariably compromised their hopes and aspirations. There is her father's mother, Grammy, who does the work of a man while providing home and shelter for a live-in hired man without benefit of clergy.

Homestead, central Montana, photo by R Scheer © 2011
There's her mother's mother, who teaches school into her seventies to support her family and pay for her husband's care in a nursing home. There's the author's aunt Imogen, who remains unmarried and also teaches school. There's the author's mother, who marries a handsome cowboy and then struggles to make a place for herself in her husband's domineering family.

Meanwhile, the men in her stories make equally interesting studies, especially her strong-willed father, Jack, who's a natural horseman and top hand. Then there's her mother's father, who cannot withstand the pressures of a lonely, hard life on the prairie. Finally, she tells of a husband in later years, a wildcat oilman who is in complete denial that he is dying of pulmonary fibrosis.

This is a well-written, absorbing and sometimes harrowing book that renders such a vivid picture of Montana homesteaders and the extremes of rural life. Thanks to the University of Oklahoma Press for keeping it in print. It's available at amazon and AbeBooks.

Coming up: Jonathan Raban, Bad Land


  1. Ron, when I first visited WY, I was totally awe struck at the space, god help me if I went to Montana!.....

  2. So much room out there. Maybe I need to move.

  3. Charles, Cheyenne, David...the irony is that many Montanans no doubt think it's getting too crowded.

  4. Not only is it too crowded but the landscape is littered with ruin and debris. Montana's rural junk is wrecking the last virgin state.