Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ralph Beer, In These Hills

Ralph Beer is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, and for my money he could write lots more. He's good. Montana Week continues here at BITS with his collection of short essays about his life as a rancher outside Helena. Many of them are humorous and rich with Western wit; some have a melancholy undertone. All are very finely crafted.

Working a ranch that has been in his family for four generations, Beer slowly comes to terms with the futility of maintaining a lifestyle that can no longer be justified as a way to make a living. As cattle prices fail to meet the rising costs of running a ranch, it is finally only humor, sentiment, self-respect and the well-worn romance of the rural West that keep him going.

His essays chart the gradual decline of ranching, even as he puts in new fences and throws himself into the yearly rounds of upkeep and improvements. Meanwhile, his humor also does a lot to deromanticize the Western mystique.

Montana ranch, photo by R Scheer © 2011
A trip into town becomes an occasion to reveal himself as a fish out of water. The descriptions of ranch work often show him struggling with uncooperative equipment and stock, and often in brutal weather. A tongue-in-cheek discourse on pickups explores the special kind of love affair between men and their trucks.

Other essays are rich with boyhood memories of his father and grandfather and the friendships of men who have been long-time neighbors and mentors. Some essays are celebrations of skills and craftsmanship no longer appreciated. 

For instance, the building of a log barn by his great-grandfather, the work of a hayfield irrigator, his own reconstruction of an old snowplow, the way a natural horseman rides a horse. In these, his essays become a balancing between a sense of people and times slipping into the irretrievable past and an embrace of what is still there to be cherished in moments of grace and pride.

Thanks to the University of Nebraska Press, In These Hills is in print and available at both amazon and AbeBooks.  For a sample of Beer's excellent fiction, get a copy of his 1986 novel The Blind Corral, which tells a story very similar to his own, about a Vietnam veteran inheriting a family ranch.

Coming up: Mary Clearman Blew, All But the Waltz


  1. Ralph Beer,seems to have fallen off the face of the world.I have not heard any thing about him in a long time,don't even know if he still lives in Montana.

  2. I just read THE BLIND CORRAL and am scouring the web looking for information about him and his other books… so happy to have found your blog. The novel profoundly moved me, and I will be thinking about it for a long time. Right up there as a favorite book of all time. Thank you for more information about IN THESE HILLS… off to buy!