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A Bumper Crop of Literary Events

By Hannah Putman | HUMANITIES, September/October 2003 | Volume 24, Number 5

“We were famished for something read,” writes Granville Stuart, a miner and cattle owner who became the Montana state librarian in the late 1800s. When he and his brother heard of a man with a trunk full of books, they traversed one hundred and fifty miles and several dangerous rivers to obtain five books. Stuart’s expedition has become the stuff of legend in Montana.

This year the state is celebrating its literary heritage with a sampling of programs that includes the fourth annual state book festival. Montana will also be one of eight state humanities councils participating in the National Book Festival to be held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on October 4.

The national festival will involve the humanities councils from Arizona, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia. The Library of Congress sponsors the festival in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Humanities and Centers for the Book across the country. The event drew 45,000 people to the National Mall last year, and the Center for the Book expects even more to attend this year.

In Montana, the land and literature have always been unified. “You think not in terms of streets and addresses, but in terms of physical features,” says Mark Sherouse, executive director of the Montana Humanities Council. “I’ve never met a character in Montana who wasn’t interesting, and who didn’t have an interesting story. But they all relate to place.”

Montana’s literary tradition has its roots in the writings of Granville Stuart, Walter McClintock, and Lewis and Clark, and twentieth-century writers such as A. B. Guthrie, Richard Hugo, and Tim Cahill.

The state’s rugged legacy continues with the selection of Mildred Walker’s novel Winter Wheat for the inaugural One Book Montana. The novel chronicles the life of a young woman living on a wheat farm in the northern part of the state, whose story spans two world wars. The main character, Ellen Webb, comes to understand and appreciate the land that can be desolate and abundant by turns.

Sylvia Morey, an English teacher at Sentinel High School in Missoula, Montana, explains that this book imparts lessons to its readers. “Appreciate the land, build a relationship with the land as well as with people,” she says. “You can get more intergenerational dialog developed, the young people talking to the older people, what it was really like for Grandpa and Grandma being raised on a ranch.”

Sherouse hopes to encourage people to communicate across cultures and lifestyles. “The rural experience is declining in some ways, so one hopes that there will be some dialog across the urban and rural and agricultural lines.”

Winter Wheat will be the centerpiece of Montana’s upcoming book festival. Discussions and activities will feature Ripley Hugo, Walker’s daughter. Hugo recently published a biography of her late mother, entitled Writing for Her Life.“ Winter Wheat was one of the first novels that the government had put into paperbacks to send overseas to service men and women. Mother got several letters about it from service men,” Hugo says. “One thanked her for the furlough home.”

The festivities will also include an evening reading and a screening of the new documentary film, Stone Reader: A Movie for Anyone Who Has Ever Loved a Book. The book on which the movie is based, Stones of Summer, will be republished in October.

The One Book program is finding success beyond the library and the classroom. Bolt and Anchor Supply, a hardware wholesaler in Missoula, recently started a book group to discuss Winter Wheat. Nancy Pearl, who first dreamed up the One Book program, believes it is accomplishing its goal: “It opens the world of the reader.”