The Montana Book Award honors books that have a Montana setting or author, or —in the case of this year’s winner—both. Not only does Great Falls author Ruth McLaughlin live in Montana, she grew up here. In fact, her memoir about life in the northeast corner of the state is a quintessential Montana story.
Bound Like Grass: A Memoir of the Western High Plains tells the story of McLaughlin’s idealistic grandparents’ pursuing their dreams by homesteading and her parents’ hardscrabble existence trying to hang onto the land.
The book begins with McLaughlin finding the only remains of the house where she grew up are a blackened chimney and rubble—perfect symbols of the broken dreams caused by the Montana homestead era of the early twentieth century.
Historians agree that big chunks of the three million acres of Montana land that were claimed under the Dessert Land Act of 1877 should never have been homesteaded. Promoters enticed homesteaders to try dry land farming with the slogan, “Rain Follows the Plow.” That was always a dubious statement and it proved to be false —if not an outright lie. Dry land farmers enjoyed some success in the relatively wet years in the 1900s and 1910s, but then drought set in launching an exodus on par with the dustbowl.
While it helps to know the background, McLaughlin’s book isn’t a history lesson. It a story about the descendants of the rugged people who kept their land through the Great Depression and the tough lives they led. In addition to their struggle to make the meager land yield enough to put food on the table, her parents contended with raising four children, including two disabled daughters. McLaughlin tells the heartbreaking stories of her sisters with loving candor.
Even more heart rending is the story of her brother’s escape to California and his troubled relationship with their father. After his father gives up farming, the son asks for only one thing—a worn out tractor that could be restored into a valuable collector’s item. The old man sells the tractor for a few dollars—a searing symbol of toxic relationship.
McLaughlin writes with the blazing clarity of prairie sun on a cloudless day. She uses writing techniques like a master novelist to turn what might seem the most ordinary of lives into a compelling story. Ruth McLauglin’s Bound Like Grass belongs on your bookshelf with Montana’s other masterpiece memoirs: Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky, Mary Clearman Blew’s All But the Waltz, and Judy Blunt’s Breaking Clean.
— To find out more about my work with the Montana Book Award look under the “Categories Button” on the right.