Rebuilding community in the Western novel

Mary Clearman Blew discusses her latest novel, “Waltzing Montana.”

click to enlarge Rebuilding community in the Western novel
Zach Wilkinson/Inland 360
Blew shown in her home office.

Moscow author Mary Clearman Blew spent most of her childhood on a ranch in a remote area of central Montana and has always felt a deep connection to the land and its people. Her new novel, “Waltzing Montana,” showcases how extensive that connection is, and the variety of stories that the state has to offer.

The book features Mildred Harrington, who is loosely based on real-life midwife, Edna McGuire, in rural Montana. One night, Mildred is on the way home from a birth when she finds an old love, Pat, injured after being thrown off his horse. She begins to examine her isolated life while grappling with resurfacing feelings for Pat and dealing with past and present hardships. The novel is the first installment in what Blew calls a planned “quartet” of novels that will span a number of decades.

After Blew retired from the University of Idaho in 2015, she was attempting to finish a different novel in the quartet but had trouble making progress. Then she received an email from a UI professor asking her to replace a teacher on administrative leave. Not wanting to let the already enrolled students down, she accepted the position and ended up teaching what she said was “an exciting and eye-opening semester.”

“After that, I turned in my grades, went home and opened my file and everything flowed. I don’t know why, but within a year I had written a novel,” she said.

After completing that book, she began to write “Waltzing Montana” which was published by University of Nebraska Press and can be purchased at BookPeople of Moscow and online. Blew answered a few questions about the book.

Q: Why did you feel this was a story that needed to be told?

Rebuilding community in the Western novel
"Waltzing Montana" Cover

A: Well, because it hadn’t been.

Q: To what extent did Edna McGuire inspire this novel?

A: Well, I never knew her but she had a tenuous link to my family. My father’s father died when he was just three and so he had sort of a stand-in father who was a sheepherder for Edna. He had a habit — if he saw somebody come through the neighborhood — of standing in his shack door and looking out, and he was doing this one day when somebody rode by and shot him dead. Edna traveled up to his shack to bring him supplies and found him.

I got intrigued by this story. There’s a mystery there to start with, and there’s the mystery of Edna herself. I didn’t know much about her, and then I was able to interview two elderly women who had known her. That was where I started. I didn’t have enough to write a book about Edna McGuire, which was my original goal, but my question was: “Why would a young, relatively well-educated woman choose an isolated life?” Then I realized, if I write a novel about her, I can find out.

Q: The novel is an interesting spin on typical Western genres, which often highlight male protagonists. What inspired you to turn this trope around?

A: The Western genre expects certain things, the gunfight, the street gangs, but it also promotes the loner, the individual. My take on the Western from the very beginning is more a matter of community. People depended on each other. In my family, there were stories about a child going missing and everyone in the community turning up to hunt for the child. I remember a story about a man becoming ill around harvest time and all the men in the community rallied together and harvested his crop for him. Now that’s far from the idea of the lone gunman.

Q: What did you feel was the most difficult part of the novel to write?

A: It’s hard to say. Once I got started, one scene led to another, but I think anytime you have to write about trauma, it’s difficult. It has to be done in such a way that the reader can experience it; so what a character feels, you have to feel. So, anytime you’re writing about a violent scene, you’re going to go through that yourself.

Q: Mildred and the other characters experienced the Spanish flu pandemic. Do you think this is a prominent theme that could connect with modern readers, having just gone through the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: Oh very definitely. The novel doesn’t dwell on the Spanish Flu, you just hear a mention of how awful it was. But it was; it was dreadful. You’ll hear about the COVID-19 pandemic being the first pandemic since the Spanish Flu. The symptoms weren’t the same, but the effect was the same. It wasn’t a major concern of mine, it’s just that it was a fact in Mildred’s life that she had gone through the Spanish Flu. In my own family, when the Spanish flu hit, it affected everyone in the neighborhood of my great uncle, except him and his wife’s aunt. So, they went all over the neighborhood (to lend a hand) just like Mildred. There, again, you have the theme of community.

Q: What about “Waltzing Montana” makes you most proud? What is the most prominent aspect you hope readers take away?

A: Well, I would hope, number one, that people just enjoy reading it, that it would be a pleasure to read. I hope that it might open doors to the way life has been lived in the West and where we have depended on each other. I would hope that people would like Mildred and Pat.