I’ll wear my biases on every sleeve. First, I cut my teeth reading William Kittredge’s non-fiction. His personal essay, Drinking and Driving, begins, “Deep in the far heart of my upbringing, a crew of us sixteen-years-old lads were driven crazy with ill-defined midsummer sadness by the damp, sour-smelling sweetness of night-time alfalfa fields, an infinity of stars and moonglow, and no girlfriends whatsoever. Frogs croaked in the lonesome swamp.” I’d still give a pinky-toe to be able to write a paragraph that good. Second, and to my great fortune, he’s become a friend. I published him at Big Sky Journal, he blurbed my novel, we worked together on an anthology of short stories. Third, and like most avid readers within Montana’s literary community, I’ve been waiting for a novel from him for years. Does any of this compromise my objectivity as a critic? Not a whit.
William Kittredge is a figure unique in western letters. A career built on a selection of sharp-eyed, gentle-hearted essays, memoirs, and short stories, thirty-some years spent mentoring aspiring writers at the University of Montana (his influence in this regard is incalculable), he is almost without professional peer. But he hasn’t written a novel. It’s been the conspicuous absence within an enormous portfolio of accomplishments. Thus, and given the esteem with which he’s held by the community, it seems only natural to have approached the reading of his new novel with some measure of trepidation. Would the book live up to its own possibilities? Yes, yes, indeed yes. I finished The Willow Field a couple nights ago, turned off the reading lamp and eased back, still smelling a little fresh hay, the saddle leather and horse sweat, and thinking, “Man, it’s so good, it’s really goddamned good.”
The armature of The Willow Field is bolted up from the life of Rossie Benasco, a horseman from Nevada, his father a casino worker, a man who “dressed in dark suits and spent his hours standing back, watching the cards and the roll of the dice and ivory balls spinning on the wheels.” Rossie quits school at fifteen and goes to work as “wrango boy on the Neversweat, one of the vast Nevada empire ranches, on the Horse Fork of the Humboldt River beyond Winnemucca.” A Hamley saddle and a snaffle-bit bridle, a Hudson Bay blanket and a bar of Lava soap. He dodges the love of a red-haired girl by signing up for a horse drive, Nevada to Calgary. Then detours (with some ineptitude) after the love of his life (she’s pregnant with another man’s child), and ends up on a horse ranch in Montana’s Bitterroot valley. “Rossie found an old schoolhouse building with a sign that read Kanaka Creek Ranch, and under that, Stevenson Enterprises. But it was empty, doors locked. So he turned onto a road alongside a shallow canyon, figuring that the stream coursing through it had to be Kanaka Creek and that the Stevenson house had to be upstream. Ahead, he could hear the rattling of a steel-wheeled steam tractor and soon saw that it was towing three hitched-up wagons loaded with timothy hay, which he followed through a cottonwood grove and into an open field.” Youth to old age, wilderness to subdivisions, the great depression to modernity, Rossie’s long life in the West parallels very nicely the progression of the region’s history.
As with most good western fictions, The Willow Field is informed by place, by landscape. “On the third day he reached the trails leading through the foothills of the Rockies into wilderness where streams cascaded from hanging ice fields and over great cliffs and evaporated into spray, wisping down into timber, then gathering again and running over gravel fields into the Bow River.” It’s also shot through with the authority of work, the details of daybreak to backbreak for an honest dollar. About stacking hay, Kittredge writes, “Four men drove buck racks, each with a team of plodding geldings that pushed half-ton loads of cured hay before them across the meadow and onto a rope-work net spread before the beaver slide. The net setters…cinched the net around the load and hooked it onto the cable that ran up the slide and along the length of the stack to the rear, where a steel trigger hook linked that far end to a two-wheeled pull-up cart drawn by a four-horse team. Soon as the net setters called out, the pull-up driver, a bowlegged man named McWhorter, urged his team forward, and another buck load of hay was drawn up the beaver slide and over onto the stack. Once the load had been drawn roughly into place, the stackers shouted and the pull-up driver kicked at his trigger, releasing the hook. The taut cable rebounded with a snap and fell loose, and the pull-back boy, on a patient saddle horse, dallied the long rope attached to the net, kicked his horse, and dragged the net and trailing cable back down the beaver slide and into position….A load every sixty seconds, sixty loads every hour, all day long.”
But the beating heart of The Willow Field lies finally in its characters, the people who rise up off the page quick as if from a pop-up book. Rossie and his wife, Eliza. Eliza’s slowly-dying father and mercurial mother. Rossie’s friendships, then his children. His growth, almost despite himself, from a high school dropout to a local businessman respected enough to run for political office. By the end of the novel, these people are as real as your next door neighbors, and I can’t think of any higher praise for a fiction. The complicated, equivocating desires, the guilty ambitions, the strength that’s never as strong as it pretends and the weaknesses that are always just around the corner, no matter how we deny them. A quote from a James Wright poem serves as an epigram, reading in part, “They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other. / There is no loneliness like theirs.” A western novel, sure, but The Willow Field is thematically preoccupied with matters that transcend the West, those universal and oft-plumbed (but never thoroughly explored) regions of the human heart that keep pulling us toward each other. It’s about loneliness, and how every well-meaning soul keeps aching toward some measure of shelter and solace, understanding and sympathy.
It’s the best novel about the American West I’ve read in years.