The Gifts That Last Forever.


As we close in on the eleventh hour and more than a few of you are still trying to decide on the perfect Christmas gift for someone you hold dear, I have decided to ride to the rescue. I sent out an all-points bulletin to friends and family for what they would consider to be important, great, or wonderful book title suggestions for people who are having difficulty finding just the right Christmas gift. Many of those friends have generously responded with thoughtful suggestions for books in the very broad categories of Montana and the natural world, fiction and non-fiction alike.


Christmas would not be complete for me if I did not have a new book or two waiting on the bedside stand when the Christmas things are all over. It’s always been that way, even in my earliest memories.


Each of the five kids in our family got at least one book for Christmas, and sometimes more. I still have many of those books. I have lugged them all over the map, packing and unpacking them in dorm rooms, apartments, military barracks, farmhouses, and more recently, a few houses right here on the city streets of Missoula. A place never feels quite like home until at least a special few of those books are out and accessible. And the wonder of those new books on Christmas is a special memory. There is something magic about the smell and feel of a brand new book, and the promise that comes with it of taking you to new and amazing places or introducing you to unforgettable characters.


Turning to my bookshelf as I write these words, I can immediately see the familiar cover of the copy of Alice in Wonderland that I received for Christmas when I was in the fourth grade. Right next to it is Wild Animals I have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton and Marie Sandoz’ Crazy Horse. All Christmas presents long ago, all reread from time to time since, and all influencing my view of the world in some way or another.


Most of my pals have been readers, too. I suppose that appreciation for the written word and the beauty of language and the shared enjoyment that comes from wonderful stories of all kinds were part of what made us friends in the first place and has kept us that way for all these years. I can’t remember the last time one of my pals or family members pointed me in the direction of a book that I didn’t end up enjoying, although there must be some.


Homer was the first to submit his suggestions. He is always working on reading at least one book. He wrote, “Two that should be on the required reading list for all Montanans are The Rape of the Great Plains – Northwest America, Cattle and Coal, by K. Ross Toole, and Last Stand at Rosebud Creek – Coal, Power, and People, by Michael Parfit. They are not casual reads, as you might guess or remember. Of course, there’s Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through it and Other Stories, but I suppose everyone has read that. One of my all time favorites is Journal of a Trapper, 1834-1843, by Osborne Russell. And, I think we should all have a bedside copy of New and Selected Poems, Vol. One by Mary Oliver.”


Gabby provided his suggestions quickly and without commentary, but I happen to know exactly why he chose these two books. Smith and Other Events: Tales of the Chilcotin, by Paul St. Pierre is a wonderful collection of honest but gentle stories about the people who carve out their livings in a remote and beautiful corner of British Columbia. Goodbye to a River, by John Graves is a deeply personal and beautifully told story of change, loss, and enduring beauty on a legendary Texas river. These are both the kind of books that you may find yourself buying extra copies of whenever you run across them in a used bookstore. You want them to give away to your friends. And that’s exactly what you do.


My son Sander also offered his suggestions without additional commentary. Guiding Elliot, by our own Robert Lee is a local favorite, especially among the guiding community. Sander is a guide, but as far as I know he does not aspire to write about any of it. He also recommends Fire and Brimstone-The North Butte Mining Disaster, by Michael Punke, a chronicle of the worst hard rock mining disaster in American history, that tells the story against a backdrop of political and social events across the State of Montana and the country, and around the world in 1917. Despite my best efforts, Sander has never really been a person who waited impatiently for the next book to come his way. So his recommendations here should be considered high praise.


Val, my older brother who may be dabbling in becoming a book reviewer now that he’s retired, offered these books: “The Painter, by Peter Heller is a compelling story, with great detail given to the fly fishing obsession of the protagonist. Also great insights, I think, into the creative process, and into one view of a shallow southwestern art market. And, Let Him Go, by Larry Watson is a good and quick read, a short double love story set in Northeastern Montana and Western North Dakota. You know some of these folks.”


Sister-in-law Mary Ann had some ideas, too. “Just slipping my addition in here, Greg – hope you don’t mind – you can take it or leave it.  The Homing Instinct, by Bernd Heinrich…biologist/observer of the homing instinct in animals but ultimately the effect it has on human happiness.  It’s Maine, not Montana, but a great reference to ‘Deer Camp’ which may ring familiar with you or your readers.”


Gimpy, who does not effuse too often about books, was firm in his assertion that, “Your list would not be complete unless you include A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold.” No, it certainly wouldn’t.


Brother Steve down in Berkeley, California offers his own suggestion of just one book, Wide Open Town, by Myron Brinig. Steve says that this novel of life in a Butte-like town called Silver Bow contains writing that “is often very beautiful. And it’s especially interesting because this book was published in 1931.”


Nephew Winsor pushed the envelope with his suggestion, “The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings…for kids and adults. I just loved the setting – very different from Montana, but so rich.” Okay, Wins, it is a wonderful book, and another one of those oldies (1938) that stands the test of time.


Niece Jenny was more expansive. She suggested Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt, “A vivid picture of life on the remote Montana prairie, a woman attempting to live a traditional role, and eventually bucking tradition and leaving the ranch.  A book that both honors a life that is deeply connected to the land and shows us how hard that life is.” And she followed that up with The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. “A riveting autobiography, it’s the story of four children growing up in the West with parents who teeter on the line between non-conformism and just plain irresponsibility.  It is great storytelling, and also shows us that family love can persist, unconditionally, even in the face of terrible difficulties and questionable parenting.”


Patrice was short and to the point. “Right now, if I have to pick two of them, they would be Fools Crow, by James Welch and Where Rivers Change Direction, by Mark Spragg. I’d use the same three words to describe both:  haunting, rich, and beautiful.”


Roper, who happens to belong to five, yes five book clubs that I know of, could hardly be expected to pick just a couple of titles to recommend, but she gave it at try with, The Surrounded, by D’Arcy McNickle, and Montana 1864: Indians, Immigrants, and Gold in the Territorial Year, by Ken Egan Jr.


Over dinner last weekend I asked friends Slats and Ruth what they would suggest. I already knew that one would be Badluck Way by Bryce Andrews because they had just given me their dog-eared copy of the book with instructions that I needed to read it, and I will. Maybe I’ll even provide my personal review right here when I get it read. Meanwhile, according to the cover blurb “Above all, it is a celebration of the breathtaking wilderness and the satisfaction of hard work on some of the harshest, most beautiful land in the world.” That sounds good enough for me. Then the discussion wandered to other books and, of course, James Welch came up, and the question of “how can you pick just one.” So we agreed to suggest folks read them all or choose from “Winter in the Blood,” “The Death of Jim Loney,” and “Fools Crow.”


And last, but certainly not least, Erwin, my pal of forty some years since the days when he was assigning his wrestling team to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, had just two suggestions. “I think the most important books to read about Montana, for me anyway, were This House of Sky, by Ivan Doig, and The Surrounded, by D’Arcy McNickle. ” I don’t need to add anything to that. People will know why they’re important books once they read them.”


As for me, I’ll save my suggestions for another time. This is a pretty good list to work on right now. I’ll bet you can find a copy of almost every one of these books in one of local independent new and used bookstores. There must be a book on this list that would please even your most persnickety friend. I want to thank my family and friends for humoring me and taking the time to make some suggestions. And if anyone asks why you decided on a book for Christmas this year, just direct them to this poem from Emily Dickinson:


There is no frigate like a book

To take us Lands away,

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of toll:

How frugal is the chariot

That bears the human soul!












  1. Tough Trip Through Paradise by Andrew Garcia

  2. Can’t wait to read some of those books. Thanks to Peggy, I’m going to get Tough Trip Through Paradise first, since I’ve never read it and had forgotten about it.

    If you do a blog post about books, you know you’re gonna get more: Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: And a Man Called Horse, the Hanging Tree, and Lost Sister, by Dorothy Johnson, all in one book; The Big Burn, Timothy Egan; The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner.

  3. “The Singing Wilderness” and “The Listening Point” by Sigurd Olson – while not Montana, they both are a collection of beautiful essays about wilderness and wild country – nice way to end the day…or start it!

  4. A terrific but under-appreciated book by Ivan Doig, “Bucking the Sun”, about Montana dustbowl farmers that become workers on the Fort Peck dam. A love story and murder mystery, wrapped in Depression history and Montana landscape.

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