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'The Montana Medicine Show's Genuine Montana History'

“The Montana Medicine Show’s Genuine Montana History”

By B. Derek Strahn

Riverbend Publishing

Fans of the NPR series “The Montana Medicine Show” will be pleased to learn that researcher, narrator and writer B. Derek Strahn has published a compendium of episodes arranged in chronological order and illustrated throughout. “The Montana Medicine Show’s Genuine Montana History” will, however, also appeal to people who have not yet had the opportunity to hear any of the two-minute programs.

In the book’s introduction, historian Strahn admits that he had his doubts about doing a radio show when Jim Kehoe of Montana State University’s KGLT suggested the concept: “I knew that simply telling an accurate two-minute story was challenging — researching and writing a concise weekly broadcast that someone might actually want to listen to seemed almost impossible. Besides, my voice sounded funny on radio.”

Luckily, Strahn overcame his doubts, and the show has been produced since 2008. Its focus has been on personalities — “a rugged cast of hucksters, risk-takers, reformers, warriors and reprobates.” And, while nuance and complexity can, as Strahn admits, sometimes fall victim to the “compression” required of the two-minute format, The Montana Medicine Show is factually accurate and avoids the trap of easy summation, reserving general impressions and editorializing for eyewitnesses and other contemporary accounts.

Unlike the radio series, the book allows for visual illustration, and, in fact, there are fascinating black and white photos to accompany every vignette. The print version also enables the reader to linger for more than two minutes over each famous character and significant event.

From its brief but touching biography of York, the only member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who was not a free man, to its final accounting of the Cat-Griz rivalry, “The Montana Medicine Show’s Genuine Montana History” demonstrates the diversity of the Montana experience. Floods, fires, cowboys, movie stars — it has been quite a ride.

Strahn’s cast is, indeed, grand. He is not just concerned with establishment figures like Lee Metcalf and Mike Mansfield. He also tells of IWW firebrands Frank Little and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, of daredevils like Evel Knievel and Montie Montana, of heroes like Plenty Coups, Sister Providencia Tolan, and Maurice Hilleman.

Even if you think you know who these people are, you will find obscure facts to further illuminate their larger-than-life personalities. One of the greatest writers of the western, for example, was not named Will, or Bret, or A.B. In fact, Dorothy Johnson spent 60 years “penning tales of the wild west and its often-desperate occupants,” keeping, as she put it, “a Colt .44 beside the typewriter” to inspire her.

“The Montana Medicine Show’s Genuine Montana History” is certainly compelling enough to be read straight through. Some readers might prefer, though, to pick out the characters and events that particularly interest them, and, from there, they will likely become addicted to the intoxicating medicine of history as it drives them to further exploration.

Cara Chamberlain is the author of two books of poetry, “Hidden Things” and “The Divine Botany.”