Montana 1948: a novel

readingSome years ago, I taught a literature course in which, among other works, we read Montana 1948, a powerful novel by Larry Watson. The book sparked interesting class discussions over a period of several weeks, though none more intriguing — to me at least — than the one that took place after I found myself reminding students we were talking about a work of fiction, which meant the story, though written in the first person, was not true.

One student, a very quiet young man who always sat in the way back, seemed not to have understood that the book was entirely spun out of sugar and air until he heard my jolting reminder. When my words registered with him, he looked as though I had punched him low and hard. Because he had all along believed the story to be true, he said he felt betrayed — so much so that he told us he would never again read another novel. Other students said they also felt bamboozled, though no one else vowed to give up on fiction for good.

Even when I was a very young and inexperienced writer of fiction and poetry, I often got twisted around this idea of truth-telling and wondered what it actually meant for me to be an honest writer of made-up stories and poems. Over time, I have come to think that truth-telling is any writer’s true north and that sensitive readers will know an honest piece of writing, no matter the genre, by the way it makes them feel. Judging by the student responses in my class, I’d say Larry Watson’s compass needle was stuck on “N” all the while he was writing Montana 1948.

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Tripping then falling

alice-falling

1. night

In the fever dream I mean to write a love poem,

an ode really, but without any edges,

and begin to think how I can sardine together

tender words you would have wanted to hear:

loverdarlingsweetheartdear

(as a woman might call to a sailor tossed over the bow)

or try and imagine a blue-black ocean crashing waves

of churning conch pearls onto the brown sand and

burying you knee deep in abalone shell.

2. dawn

Hearing the laughter of a Siren from another dark sea

I look up just as she touches your mouth with a fingertip and

whispers something saucy enough to make you

grab hold her hips and quick swim away from me.

3. day

In the morning dream I awaken

belly down on a bed of cracked earth

and somehow know that our hot-dim world

has been without rain and bright light for years.

Off to the right stands a ramshackle cottage

where we once lived with our young children —

well kept then, our cottage —

with the front window kicked out across its middle and

looking like a row of jagged teeth.

Just inside sits our long table,

now made of red hickory,

where we ate a last meal together, the twins,

as you may recall,

spooning sweet potato pie onto the good plates

while two flickering honey candles dripped wax

on the turkey platter and our kind but unlovely

Charlotte, your dear girl,

quietly carved her first name into my sideboard.

4. and down

At some point I notice the basement door

and am eager to remember what else we left behind

so slowly descend the wooden stairs though

cannot see much of anything and

missing the bottom step altogether

fall forward into the silent wide open.

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Wow

Jaguar

but the best encounter

Diane

I’ve ever had

the best one

was when

I was tracking a jaguar

in the jungle

by myself

which I usually don’t do

I saw these big male tracks of a jaguar

I’d never seen before and

I just took off thinking okay

I’ll track it a little while but

I shouldn’t be alone but

I ended up tracking it for hours and

 it was getting dark and

I didn’t have a flashlight and

I can’t be alone in the jungle without a flashlight so

I turn around and

there’s the jaguar

in back of me

wow

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(Excerpt from an 8.18.14 interview between NPR’s Diane Rehm and zoologist/wildlife ecologist Alan Rabinowitz )

Fast

Really we were jealous of Moira Keegan, who had had polio when she was small, but we pretended moral outrage. She was said to be fast, but no one actually knew this for sure or knew for sure what “fast” meant. Rumor had it that she let boys feel her up inside her blouse and that sometimes she hiked up her skirt so they could fool around up there. What they would do once they got to her cotton panties we didn’t know, not then, but privately we thought it had to be delicious. At least I thought that.

On the playground, Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Curtis, and Mr. Downing, the fifth grade teachers, stood at the center of our dodge ball game and warned us about Moira. We were scared for her, and some of us were just scared. We could only imagine wet kissing, not much more, and even that was a big mystery.

One Saturday afternoon, I met Johnny D’Angelo, a hood, at the movies. He was with Kevin Kelleher, and the three of us sat together. Once the theater went dark, Johnny slid his arm around my shoulders, leaned over me, and went straight for a tonsil kiss. There was nothing tender about it or him. When it was over, he leaned towards Kevin and said something that made them both laugh. After that, the three of us stared up at the screen.

The following Monday, I knew I would have to face Johnny and say something. When he sauntered into the classroom, I was standing by the coat closet with some other little girls. “I’m not Moira Keegan,” I shouted across the room and surprised myself.

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