Magnificence and Malfeasance: A magnificent place where “evil exists” (Montana, present-day): When was the last time a novel brought you to tears? So much emotion in Carrie La Seur’s prose – enchanted, poignant, angry. The soul of northern plains Montana looms large, as important as the emotionally-felt characters. Understandable, for this over 10 years in the making debut is deeply rooted to the author’s Montana stretching seven generations to the 1860s. The “home place” preserves a “common heritage.”
Drawn to novels with a powerful sense of place, I’d no idea this one would also be a page-turning mystery. It’s also a heart-tugging romantic story of first-loves. Under its big skies, there’s ample room to tackle big issues: duty, ethics, racial and sexual prejudices, environmental protection (mineral rights). There’s also a rancher/cowboy life “where you work your tail off for twelve months a year and live or die by three hours at the livestock auction in February.” Here “the men have always been strong but the women are made of steel.” In short, this novel ought to have wide appeal, to both men and women.
The opening line – “the cold on a January night in Billings, Montana, is personal and spiritual” – grabs you as I’d hoped prose crafted by an environmental lawyer/author’s might. The unforgiving winter weather, its own character, plays a prominent role. The central character, Alma, 30, named after the author’s great-grandmother, lost her parents at 17 on icy roads, probably on a “high country dark” night when the brutal winds whipped over the:
“Beartooth range to the west … shivering down the Yellowstone, the mighty Elk River – howling hurting … The leafless trees bow over it, but the pines, the native ladies, merely part their heavy skirts and let the wind come through, lifting the featherweight of snow from their boughs, dispersing it in breathtaking little blizzards that sweep down the street, one after another, like guerillas advancing, attacking, and taking cover.”
Despite Alma Terrebone’s Montana ancestry going back generations like the author’s, her “deep-frontier instinct” and “infallible country girl sense of direction,” she ran away from this land of “inexpressible sweetness,” a place she feels like “texture.” Gone 15 years, she still “sees her soul as a snow globe balanced on a windowsill: something beautiful within, but sizzling with potential energy, so close to falling, shattering.” During those years, Alma channeled that energy compulsively and productively at Bryn Mawr and Yale, where she learned “how to be intimidating when something is important.” Nearing partner at a corporate law firm in Seattle, she’s done well for herself, a pro at repressing her feelings.
The problem with that escape is she left behind her younger, vulnerable, troubled, sister, Vicky, and brother, Pete. Now those ferocious winds have found Alma, instantly changing her controlled life, upon receiving a nightmare phone call from a soft-spoken detective, Ray Curtis, of the Billings police department. He’s Crow – yielding a racial theme since his is a language “barely acknowledged” – so he respectfully informs her that Vicky has been found dead on those icy streets. Vicky, 25 year old mother of 11 year old Brittany, whose father, Dennis, is one of a number of low-life men she got mixed up with. This family tragedy Alma must run to, her niece needs her. All that she has accomplished to survive and fix her destiny is at risk of unraveling, threaded with tremendous guilt as Alma journeys to piece together her sister’s life.
Not a pretty picture. Raised by an aunt and uncle, Walt and Helen, Walt a brute who “took everything to heart” since returning from Vietnam with a Silver Star and Purple Heart; Helen a passive person, weakened by multiple sclerosis, preventing her from bearing children. You might think Vicky was welcomed into their home, but she spelled trouble. A life on the edge – drugs, borrowing money from everyone, dangerous relationships. The autopsy revealed tattoos of angels flying, sending Alma’s mind back to little Vicky wanting to be an angel. The imagery of wings evokes the freedom the landscape inspires, but not for Vicki. She may have “lived under a big sky full of a million stars, none of them lucky for her.”
Did Vicki fall victim to her own circumstances, die from accidental causes on those treacherous streets? Or, was something more sinister lurking under those magnificent skies? These questions Alma doggedly pursues, while grieving and tending to her bereft niece and dealing with a make-or-break investment deal she left behind at the office, along with her boyfriend of two years, Jean-Marc Lacasse. As if not enough to balance, she runs into Chance, former rodeo cowboy turned electrical engineer whose come home to the family ranch, her first love. You may be anonymous in Seattle, but not in Billings.
Chance, what a great name – are their second chances? – will charm you. He “has a gift for falling for women who can’t accept what I have to offer.” Jayne, his dear mother who loves Alma like her own despite knowing she “broke her son’s heart,” still finds a well of human kindness to welcome her and Brittany back to their ranch. Jayne symbolizes the “quiet strength” of mothers, like the Cheyenne women, Alma muses.
Alma’s mind races back and forth in time as she races around trying to figure out what happened to Vicky. Two people she turns to are Pete, also ex-military, who owns a coffee shop, The Itching Post. Her brother has been Vicky’s rescuer, honorable, protective. The other is grandma Maddie, whose “voice speaks of place as much as the place itself, not the word but the land made flesh.” For 50 years, Maddie lived at the “home place,’’ but now she lives alone in an Airstream, frailer but still another woman of inner strength. Grandpa, Al, has passed on. Raised on a Crow reservation, he with an “exceptional sense of sacred,” is missed.
These comforting characters strike a contrast to a host of unseemly ones who become suspects in a possible homicide. They include: a crew of undesirable men Vicky was involved with; and Rick Burlington of Harmony Coal, who has been threatening landowners, tribespeople, and the “home place” to get access to mineral rights.
Alma’s in-the-moment-searching prose is filled with anger and sadness, but her musings are uplifting prose, reminiscences of an idyllic, Western childhood: riding horses (“across the vast grazing lands, along cool creek bottoms, and onto buttes that lifted them like demigods above the magnificence of a high plains universe”); fly fishing (“casting into dark, glowing pools”); “swimming the deep holes, jumping off bridges and high rocks, floating the river on inner tubes.” The nostalgic prose sparkles like her memories of “playing with sparklers on summer nights.”
Nothing, though, comes close to Alma’s remembrances of Chance, who still makes her feel “legless.” When Chances divides Montanans into “the ones who never leave, and the ones who leave for good, and the ones who choose to come back,” what he – and Alma – and we want to know is where does Alma fit in?
As there’s “no room for falseness in the moonlight” – a beautiful sentiment that matches the illumination of the truth of Vicki’s death – the reader hopes Alma cannot “unlearn” her true feelings for Chance, which she longs to do. How strong is a first-love? Can it endure like “the home place”?