Act One: An Autobiography

“Stage-struck”:  From poverty to Broadway (Bronx/Brooklyn, NY, 1914 to 1930): Beautifully written storytelling that stayed on the bestseller list over forty weeks when first published in 1959 – a book with devotees in and out of the theatrical world – is too good for Enchanted Prose to pass up because it’s not fiction.  Deeply felt books like this one seem to take on a life of their own, much like Moss Hart said a play has “its own peculiar and separate life.” And like playwriting, blogging does not come with absolute rules.  For as much as Moss Hart’s can’t-put-it-down storytelling memoir, Act One, renders a detailed, behind-the-scenes account of a famous playwright’s “lifelong intoxication with the theatre” (he wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner, You Can’t Take it with You, A Star is Born; he directed My Fair Lady, Camelot), it also offers what enchanted fiction ought to do: stir the heart and take us inside the human condition.  For those who don’t read enough memoirs, Moss Hart’s elegant prose might change that.  Yes, it’s that good.

This new edition (Act One has never gone out of print) coincides with the Lincoln Center’s production currently playing in New York City.  Dedicated to Hart’s wife of 15 years, actress/TV personality, Kitty Carlisle, it’s been updated with a moving forward by their son, Christopher Hart, a director/producer.

Act One is as physically alluring – oversized and the cover golden — as the drama it portrays.  It is not the whole of Moss Hart’s life, which is why the aptly titled “Act One.”  (Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart by Steven Bach, 2007, presents Act Two, which includes Hart’s battle with manic depression. Sadly, there is no Act Three, Hart dying early at 57 from a heart attack.)  Not that Act One, Hart’s coming-of-age story spanning ages 10 to 26, is entirely a happy journey either, but it’s full of triumphs you’ll want to cheer.

Poverty is the backdrop, overshadowing everything.  It “dulled and demeaned each day.”  Poverty Hart characterized as “thievery,” robbing the vitality out of his unemployed Jewish father (a cigar maker from England) and his also jobless brother.  Hart makes the uncommon point that it’s not just the lack of money that degrades and wears down the soul:

“It is hard to describe or to explain the overwhelming and suffocating boredom that is the essence of being poor …. Boredom is the keynote of poverty – of all its dignities, it is perhaps the hardest of all to live with – for where there is no money there is no change of any kind, not of scene or of routine.”

Poverty intensified Hart’s passion for Broadway at a time when it flourished in the 1920s, with some 70 theatres. (His attachment to his eccentric, theatre-loving Aunt Kate, who once lived with his family, another influence.)  His addiction for this “devilish profession,” which he claimed is “the most difficult of literary forms to master,” is all-encompassing.  Act One, then, is about sometimes “wanting so much it can suspend judgment, intelligence, or plain common sense.” It is always about what it takes to lift oneself out of an unrelenting human condition: the “boldness to dream,” courage, endurance, discipline, talent, “sense of timing,” and good old-fashioned luck.

One explanation Hart suggests for the magnetic appeal of the theatre is that it serves as a “refuge of the unhappy child.”  Indeed he is a lonely one, out of sync with most of his family and schoolmates.  So we almost expect he’ll drop out of school at a tender age, which he does.  And then we root for his burning wish to get his foot in the door of Broadway, which he does.  The prose draws us in, so we can picture ourselves seated beside him and his Aunt in the theatre nightly, his theatrical office job coming with the fantastic perk of free tickets.  Of course, Hart also desperately needs money.  When he finally earns some, slowly and painfully – out-of-town flops, social directing during an interesting era in American culture when “adult summer camps” proliferated – with his first Broadway hit, Once in a Lifetime, he consciously sets himself on a path of a lifetime of indulgences.  He makes no apologies for “excess;” he touts it as the purpose of money.  While most of his “shopping sprees” go beyond the scope of this first act, we don’t fault him when he gets “clothes drunk.”  No, we completely understand.

Much of Act One is a story of mentors and collaborators, the most important being the legendary, Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, George S. Kaufman.  The writing is so well-expressed we can see both men madly pouring over scene fixes for Once in a Lifetime at Kaufman’s brownstone on the Upper East Side.  Kaufman is a rather eccentric fellow – rituals of hand-washing, barely ever eating versus Hart’s voracious appetite, proud baker of wicked sugary fudge so the two can stay awake through regular all-nighters.  Kaufman’s “surgical” pencil looms very large here.

Considered one of or perhaps “the best book ever written about the American theatre,” Hart makes sure we understand it is like no other.  As far as he is concerned, there’s no “other profession as dazzling, as deeply satisfying as the theatre.”  For Hart, the “four most dramatic words in the English language [are]: Act One – Scene One,” and the “jolliest sounds in the world” are the “buzz of anticipation of a fashionable audience.”  Although he recognizes there are other careers more “noble,” none are as “sweet.” While we might not agree, you’ve got to admire the zealous devotion and fellowship.  Hart, though, admits the theatre takes a “tremendous toll” … on “nerves, in strain, in stamina – that it takes as much as it gives.”

Unquestionably, Act One delivers insightful and delightful commentary on playwriting and the “mystique” of the theatre:

“Never again a sound of trumpets like the sound of a New York opening-night audience giving a play its unreserved approval … no audience as keen, as alive, as exciting and as overwhelmingly satisfactory as a first-night audience taking a play at its heart.”

For playwrights and anyone wishing to be part of this artistic world, Act One is a gift of an insider’s observations on a range of theatrical topics – the importance of understanding the anatomy of a play; what makes great actors; sizing up pleased/displeased audiences; cultivating an “esprit de corps;” the promise of auditions and the disappointment of dress rehearsals.

While Hart’s commentary is laden with worries – by nature he’s a “chronic worrier” – let’s put aside these concerns for the moment.  Instead, let’s jump for joy when the acclaimed Kaufman magnanimously tells the opening-night audience that the success of Once in a Lifetime is “80%” Hart’s.  They have dissected and re-written Hart’s play so many, many times it’s heartbreaking and heartwarming.  For you cannot help but be inspired that they don’t just give up.  (Kaufman at one point did, leaving it to Hart to find their way back.)

When at long last the collaborators land their Broadway hit, Hart tells us “there is no smile as bright as the box-office man the morning after a hit.”  I’d venture to guess that if you were standing in front of that box-office window you’d be smiling brightly too.

Applause!  Applause!  Lorraine

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Astonish Me 1

Perfectionism and Aestheticism:  The All-Consuming Ballet (Paris, NY, Toronto, Chicago, CA, 1973 – 2002):  The deeper meaning of the title and pink ballet ribbon wrapping Maggie Shipstead’s compact second novel unwrap, in layers, through many characters, in many places, over time, astonishing until the final act.  Like a ballet balance beam, the author balances the gracefulness and harshness of balletomania, “meant to look effortless, not be effortless.”  Shipstead delivers a virtuoso performance by making an enmeshed story of two families, over two generations, over some thirty years, across continents, involving Russian defectors look easy!

She accomplishes all this in just 253 pages, in part, by structuring her novel in concise chapters that move back and forth through time and place, creating distinct and real characters because they take us inside the grueling physical demands and the emotional/psychological consequences of living in a world always striving for perfection, and yet – no matter how much practice and pain the balletomane endures – will likely “spend a lifetime of feeling inadequate.”  Perfection this precise, this astonishing is elusive.

While there are many important characters, it’s Joan, a ballerina since before age five, whose influence touches them all.  And so, Astonish Me opens with Joan in New York City in 1977, at a time when even “civilization seems fragile.”  Then Joan was in the corps de ballet of a New York City ballet company choreographed by Mr. K., one of the Russian defectors, who may be the “most famous choreographer of the twentieth century.”  (Could he be inspired by Balanchine?)

From the onset, we learn key details about Joan that set the stage for unwrapping the story:

The first is she’s pregnant, which means she must forgo her life’s passion since “tininess” is all you can ever be.  Joan reconciles this as not being good enough anyway – certainly not good enough to be a soloist.  (She “wished for more talent, for better feet, longer arms.”)  Perhaps motherhood and marriage to the brilliant, handsome, and witty Jacob who has loved her forever will be enough to make her happy.  Wishful thinking when the ballet has been her life and she still looks and moves like a ballerina.  Her ballet company roommate, Elaine, suffers from the same lack of confidence (“never in her life, not once, has she danced the way she wishes”), tempered by her devotion to Mr. K, the “only person who loves ballet as much as she does.”  Joan may never be a famous ballet dancer but she was chosen by a very famous one, Arslan Rusakov, a star at the Kirov, to help him defect from Russia.  They spent a year together at the Paris Opera House, where Sergei Diaghilev transformed the art form.  Of all the Russian dancers extraordinaire, the most potent force affecting the characters in the novel is Arslan.  For Joan, she is haunted by not knowing “why he chose her?”  No spoilers, except to say that at the finale you’ll have the answer.

At the center of Joan and Jacob’s twenty-plus year marriage is their son Harry, who becomes obsessed with ballet and Arslan.  They live in southern California, where Harry grows up with his neighbor, Chloe, who also takes up the ballet.  They both see the world as “dancers and non-dancers,” idolizing dancers to “not just people.” Their passions, developing bodies, sexuality, attitudes, struggles, and gifts communicate that ballet is about “intentions, power, and unfinished things.”

The author’s handling of homosexuality stereotypes is rendered with the same balance, sensitivity, and insightfulness as elsewhere.  This theme plays out in the characters of Mr. K., who both adores the “idea of women … their capacity as vessels, their aesthetics, their otherness,” and keeps his male attractions “walled off, invisible, underground, nocturnal, private;” and in Harry, whose mother does not care if he is gay, his father concerned he might be.  Appreciatively, this writing is not gratuitous, instead restrained and thoughtful.

Chloe’s parents, Sandy and Gary Wheelock, show us what the non-dancers of the world think of the dancers.  Sandy, who just so happens to be overweight, is awfully jealous and mistrustful of Joan.  She believes that “someone so thin can’t help but be pretty,” and that “mothers who keep their figures have sacrificed less than mothers who have widened and softened.” Her husband stares at Joan.  There is “something about dancers’ bodies, the obviousness of their manufactured perfection,” the author writes, “that makes people brazen about looking and commenting.”

I especially enjoyed the ballet prose, carefully placed throughout not to overwhelm.  You don’t have to know what the ballet moves mean to sense the artistry, risk-taking, and discipline to perform them: the pas de deux, demi-pointe, ronds de jambe, plies, tendus, dégagés, fondus, frappés, développés, grand allegro, brisé volés, coupés, jetés en tournant, piqué, arabesque, chasse, sissonne ouverte, camber, adagio, battements en cloche.

Leave it to Joan’s young Harry to be the one to gain the self-assurance he’ll surely need if he is to someday, maybe, become that exalted dancer:

The ballet is the result of endless repetitions: uncounted rehearsals of acts, of scenes, of combinations, of steps.  The steps themselves are only the most recent repetitions of movements he has done thousands, probably millions, of times in different rooms, on different stages, with different partners.

Astonish Me mirrors the same techniques. It takes us to different stages, with different partners, at different times.  And it does so in chapters that feel like acts and scenes (although not experienced chronologically).  But make no mistake about it.  Others have crafted ballet novels, but none quite like this one.  Lorraine

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Under Magnolia

Southern Memories – The enduring power of a passion for reading, writing, friendship, and a “sense of place”:  It’s wonderfully fitting that the first book I can’t wait to share that’s outside the historical/contemporary fiction genre Enchanted Prose mostly blogs about is a gorgeous Southern memoir by the “Bard of Tuscany” whose madly in love with prose.  You don’t even need Frances Mayes to say she “loves imagery, I will practice writing as though I were painting.”  Her writing is so sensory and poetic you’re likely to find yourself, as I did, re-reading sentences over twice, three times, to catch the nuances, the meaning, the beauty.

It’s also apt because Under Magnolia reads like fiction.  How else could the author recall “backward time” so vividly?  Part of the answer lies in her keeping diaries, letters, scrapbooks, reading logs, poems, autobiographical writings, and photographs (sprinkled throughout).  The rest comes from memories so intensely etched they endure.  They come from the “intense physicality” of her Southern roots (Fitzgerald, Georgia), a “landscape of riddles and tricks” that profoundly moved her and saved her from a terribly dysfunctional family.  That the author derived enormous pleasure in the beauty of her surroundings and from reading and writing in spite of her circumstances is inspirational.  She’s resilient and a lover of life: “If I ever get out of here, I will never select unhappiness.”  The author’s inspiration awaits you.

From the opening line, you’re hooked: “At a few times in my life, I’ve not been aware that I’ve just stepped onto a large X.  The X in this case is being magnetically, fortuitously, drawn back to the South while on a book tour stop at Square Books, in Oxford, Mississippi.  She only intended to “pause” not “leap” – the leap leaving San Francisco where her memories were “portable” to an historic home built in 1806 in a town of 6,000 artists and “dreamers,” Hillsborough, North Carolina.  Mayes still maintains her Tuscany home, which we all got to know in her first “Under” memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun.

The dreamy NC town is not the same South as Mayes’ southern Georgia childhood, a self-contained “world in a jar.”  This “greenest-green” jar niggles our senses.  Of smells: flowering magnolias where “the bloom smells South”; a “narcotizing fragrance … jasmine, ginger lilies, gardenia, and honeysuckle”; the “verdurous air” of palmetto, crape myrtle, pecan, and sycamore trees.  Of tastes: Sally Lunn bread, Lane Cake, chocolate icebox cake, peach pickles, so tantalizing that “maybe it’s the food of the South that makes the children long so for home.”  Of heat: “The sun could melt a bar of gold.” Of beaches: where the joy of “diving through sunlight in water” is so expansive it feels like a sixth sense.

Lest Mayes’ Georgia years sound idyllic, putting aside what you may think are ordinary family dramas, they are anything but.  She is the child of two alcoholic parents, who are “wild” and “chaotic” and always frightening to her.  Their arresting photographs remind me of Zelda and F. Scott, ironically also Fitzgerald.  They are so preoccupied with themselves the author is left immensely alone, despite two older sisters.  “For hours, for years, I hide, reading by flashlight … in my hideouts, I thrived.”  She covets normalcy.  She finds it in Willie Bell, their maid who raised her and gave her “a steady point of view.”  Willie Bell offers kindness and calmness and grace, which the author likens to the ancient Egyptian queen, Nefertiti.  On a vacation with Willie Bell on the Golden Isles of Georgia, Mayes becomes painfully aware of racism: separate beaches, “separate worlds.”  This South she yearns to flee.

Her parents would drive anyone away.  They are “jets over ocean,” speeding by so fast they never notice their nine-year old driving a car!  Reading is a prodigious escape: 6-7 books a week!  The author’s dubbing her parents “fabric people” is instructive.  Her father, Garbert, owned a cotton mill; the lovely fabrics he brought home magnify her mother’s devotion to the appearance of things.  Her beautiful mother’s tragic life mirrors the textures of fabrics she surrounds herself with – the dimity, seersucker, voile, chintz, toile, and silk.  Shear and delicate, fragile.  By high school, Mayes begins calling her mother by her name, Frankye, portending the slipping away of mothering.

Part of the fragility of her parents’ story is their dramatic downward trajectory due to long, awful, debilitating illnesses, whose affect to this day is that the author has a hard time dealing with illness.  Of her mother’s potential, Mayes sadly asks: “How do you hold onto a falling star?”

There is so much more to this penetrating memoir.  Quotes and notes and impressions and stories by famous Southern writers like Faulkner; colorful grandparents, miserly Daddy Jack and Mother Mayes; and university years spent at the all-girls Randolph-Macon College, where the “unimaginable” importance of friendships is learned, at the University of Virginia, and a paradisiacal senior year at the University of Florida, where Frances Mayes is finally set free.

When Mayes muses on an ideal love, we’re treated to the elegance of a true romanticist:

I want ardent notes, wildflower bouquets left wedged inside the doorknob, poetry books wrapped in tissue, first kisses, the lips at my ear, the soft words, the moment of being, dance cards with tassels, midnight walks through old neighborhoods, laughter reaching up to the moon in the palms.

Despite pain and losses, Under Magnolia is the author’s ardent love note to us.  Open it up carefully, like tissue paper.  And then gently walk with it, dance with it, dream with it.  Lorraine

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Vienna Nocturne

When Opera was the Rage – Musical passions and an imagined love between an opera diva and Mozart (18th century European opera houses in London, Naples, Venice, Milan, Vienna):  When an acclaimed flutist and novelist (Eugenia Zuckerman) touts a musical novel about a legendary opera soprano (Anna Storace) who inspired Mozart, written by a mezzo-soprano with an opera degree (Vivien Shotwell) who sang an aria Mozart composed for Storace, you can’t help but take notice.  When that novel, “composed” over a ten-year period, is warm and light like a piece of pleasing music – an accompaniment to the “warmth” and “light” Mozart is imagined telling Storace she brings when she graces a room – you’re doubly pleased.

You need not be an opera fan to hear this novel’s music.  The prose gracefully sweeps you along through the highs and lows of Storace’s narrative. You may, though, like me be unfamiliar with the language of the opera (messa di voce, motet, cadenza, ritornello, fioratura, recitative, libretto, roulades, ornaments, rondo, singspiel). That’s perfectly alright because the author’s style is intentionally accessible.  Shotwell does not want to overwhelm us.  She wants us – like all the passionate musical characters in this novel (drawn from real people except for Lidia, Storace’s loving maid, and other servants) – to consider that there may be “no higher art than music and no purer musical form than song.” Even the alluring dusk jacket (sorry e-readers!) embracing the trim 287 pages and short chapters feel designed to please.  All part of the artfulness.

The gem of inspiration for the fictionalized story comes from an aria that Mozart composed for Anna in 1787, a duet in which he plays solo piano.  An Italian translation includes: “Don’t fear, greatly beloved; for you, always, my heart will remain.”  The opera was Mozart’s farewell gift to Storace when she left Vienna to return home to London to be with her fiercely protective brother, Stephen, a violinist; the author offers up a more intriguing reason.  By now, Storace’s adulation is regal, leaving in a “four-horse carriage lined with furs and velvet.”  She’s 21, the same age Shotwell was when she began to write the novel.

It opens in London, 1776 and traces the meteoric rise of a child prodigy to prima donna over ten years.  Eleven-year-old Anna has a voice like a “pearl.”  She wants everyone to love her and they do.  Her first lesson is with the castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini, who “cherished her” instantly.  Without a family, she added meaning to his life, and so he devotes himself to her unconditionally like a loving father.  Two years later, Storace is performing at the Royal Opera House “where two thousand hearts lived with hers.”  Two more years, age 15, she’s ready to leave London for Naples because “all anyone wanted now were Italian divas.”  At 16, she heads to the Pergola Theatre in Venice performing comic opera with Ludovico Marchesi.  He does her an enormous favor overshadowing her for she is not to be undone, and on stage, naturally, on-the-spot, she outshines him because she’s also clever and witty.  Fired for overstepping her role but she’s now a sensation, she heads to La Scala in Milan, where she meets and befriends an Irish tenor, Michael Kelly.  In Milan and then Venice, they are performing “opera buffa,” popularized because it can be enjoyed by everyone as opposed to serious opera (opera seria.)  The opera company includes Mandini, Benucci, Saliera, and Francesco Bussani.  Storace and Bussani play lovers on stage, which gets Storace into deep emotional territory with him off-stage.  Fortunately, she can flee from him with the rest of the company to Vienna, because that’s where a music-loving emperor, Joseph II, who believes music is “the soul of humanity,” is forming his new opera company.

Just as Vienna is thought to have been the musical soul of Europe in the 18th century, Vienna is the soul of this novel.  For here is where Anna meets 27-year-old Mozart.  He falls in love with her beautiful voice – “listening to her he remembered everything he aspired for in his music” – and she falls in love with Mozart’s music.  But were they lovers?  Was it only in their music that they found an “intimate meeting place for themselves alone”?  Or, were they more intimately involved?

As we reflect on these questions, the author presents evidence.  Mozart repeatedly needs to remind himself that he loves his wife, Constanze (and now he’s a father of a son, Karl), but the truth is he had fallen in love with her prettier, opera-singing sister, Aloysia Lange, jealous of Storace.  We’re also told that Mozart “learned early and well to disguise his feelings with revelry.”  And, it is during this time that Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro for Storace, perhaps his most beloved opera.

Shotwell delights us with descriptions of Mozart’s brilliance, intensity, playfulness, discipline, creative risk-taking, and complicated compositions. “The walls might have collapsed in flames around them and he would have kept murmuring and analyzing.”

Together, Storace and Mozart win the hearts of everyone.  Because of Shotwell’s creativity, we can see why.

An Epilogue dated 1801 and an appreciated Historical Note fill in the missing pieces, satisfying us the way you feel when you’ve bought a ticket to a performance and are so glad that you showed up.  Lorraine

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Painted Horses 1

Progress vs. Preservation, Montana in the 1950s: You don’t have to love and know horses or appreciate their role in the history of America’s West to love this historical fiction debut.  But I bet Malcolm Brooks does.  For I don’t think it’s possible to craft prose so authentic otherwise.  The story – with its well-drawn characters and pitch-perfect dialogue illuminated in backstories that transport the reader to other settings and times – Roman London archaeology, Maryland horse country, and the US. Army horse cavalry in WWII – carries an intriguing, important, and timely message.  Together, the outcome is a novel worth raving about.  An awesome voice.

Two women from very different backgrounds and two cowboys the reader senses have pasts that badly crossed drive the foreboding story.  The two women: Catherine Lemay, an ambitious 23-year old pianist turned archaeologist “in love with the vanished past” and Miriam, a Crow Indian teenager she convinces to be her guide.  The two men: Jack Allen, a cocky, enigmatic, chilling-to-watch horse wrangler and John H, the opposite, a horse tamer and talented sketcher of horses, a younger man who has also lived in a saddle.

The story sounds straightforward but it is elusive and complicated, actually.  It centers around Catherine being hired for a summer by the Smithsonian to conduct a River Basin Survey prior to the building of a major hydroelectric dam to calm nerves that there’s no historical significance in a canyon south of Billings, Montana, the site of the project. Nothing is calm here, actually.

A private company, Harris Power and Light, and the Army Corps of Engineers are also involved in the project – the power company far more powerful than innocent yet daring Catherine suspects.  Early on, there are hints of danger.  Catherine may have cut her teeth on ancient Roman (and Greek) archaeology but she knows nothing about New World archaeology in America – not about horses or their cowpunchers, nor the beauty and badlands of Montana, nor the Crow tribe of the great northern plains, nor the Basque sheepherders who immigrated to Montana from Spain and their centuries-old language, Euskara.  Most of us don’t either – but we will because Brooks wants us to.  All unfold and are skillfully woven together to illustrate deeply felt struggles between the Old World and the New – between older Native Americans who believe the construction site is “sacred” versus modern Crow who need jobs and money, and a power company that means business.

Catherine’s parents and her recent fiancé, David, have general concerns for her safety.  Those who better understand what she’s getting herself into include Miriam, who fears getting caught in the middle of her people’s fight; Max Caldwell, an avuncular gas station attendant who seems like a minor character but becomes increasingly important; and John H, whom the reader expects Catherine is destined to know.

John H (the H likely stands for Horses) is the most memorable character of them all.  A horse whisperer who “even as a boy can walk into a pasture and catch a horse, even if no one else can catch a horse.” Six years prior, he rescued a dun mare as “though the mare were born to nothing else, as though neither could conceive of another way to exist.”  His marvelous voice teaches Catherine and us about horses and a “tract of land that belongs to God Almighty, a testament to the everlasting limits of man.”

The reader is in for quite a ride as the mystery takes off.  What, if anything, do Catherine (and Miriam) uncover?  It’s a ride taken into remote backcountry mostly on horseback.  The language of horses and geology gave my new dictionary a workout!  Expect to read about percherons and pommels and quirts and cutting-horses and piebalds and bucksins and Barbs; and of batholiths and gumbos and coulees and cirques and talus slopes and cap rocks.

Far more than the new vocabulary was a feeling of wonder at the author’s writing style.  Brooks’ reverence for nature and his unique descriptions of the environment are fantastic – expressions like “lip of the sky” and the “cluck and rattle of throats and wings” and the “quaking aspens and the “air whisper in the grass” and a canyon that “yawns like the mouth of the world.”  The novel is loaded with enchanted prose.

Beyond the emotional/controversial cultural preservation versus economic/technological issue of whether this particular Montana canyon is indeed sacred to Native Americans and, therefore, should be preserved, the author wants us to reflect on even bigger, hot-button environmental/existential questions.  Max Caldwell answers by saying that it is “greatness [that] gets built on destruction.”  When he wonders “what kind of sense any of it makes.  Who’s got it right and who’s got it wrong?” you will find yourself wondering the same.

I hope you take this moving ride!  Lorraine

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