Honyocker Dreams

"Honyocker Dreams," by David Mogen, a finalist in the nonfiction category in the 2012 High Plains Book Awards.

David Mogen pursues his family’s “Montana Memories,” as the subtitle to this book of personal history labels them, by sharing narratives told by his father, especially, and other elder members of his extended family. He also recalls his own childhood experiences, with his father, a school superintendent and teacher, who frequently moved his growing family from one small town to another, and a mother who worked as a nurse. His book, "Honyocker Dreams," is a High Plains Book Awards finalist in the nonfiction category.

Mogen examines the meaning of the curious title word “honyocker”: It seems it originated as a pejorative term hurled by ranchers at newcomers homesteading. Mogen details its shifts in meaning: an insult provoking shame, a joke, and for some, including Mogen himself, a point of pride. “My father’s Irish great-grandparents who took up ranching in the 1880s would likely recognize themselves as honyockers, as would my mother’s grandparents who first broke up the sod after the turn of the century.”

“‘Come on, you honyockers,’ Dad would yell” to his family of six kids, “and we’d feel special. ‘Honyockers’ sounded kind of wild and crazy ... down to earth and tough. They had a lot of energy and spunk.” And the family needed those qualities to adjust to their frequent moves across the Hi-Line: drifting west to east from Box Elder, to Whitewater, to Frazer, and Froid (where the author attended high school).

A professor emeritus at Colorado State University, Mogen, who writes about and teaches the literature of the West and the frontier (including, of course, Native American literature), avoids unearned sentimentality in his efforts to define his family’s past. He attended a grade school so small that two teachers covered all eight years of instruction. Frazer, located along the Missouri River near Wolf Point, in the 1950s held more than 200 people, half white, half Indian; though the school was integrated, the two races maintained invisible boundaries. “None of the white people, including teachers, knew much of anything about Indian culture or Indian history, and no one even knew there was anything much to know.” Mogen quests to learn all he can about his family’s origins in Montana and how the land and culture shaped them and him. His family connections lead him up to the Browning-East Glacier Park area to learn more from a Blackfeet uncle and other family members there.

Often Mogen summarizes incidents rather than dramatizes them. He avoids a strict linear narrative as a conventional autobiography would use, yet he clearly signals to his reader the time and place of each narrative strand, from his father’s bursts of unrestrained speech in his final months, to reflections on the childhood of his grandfather who “emerged on the Montana range like an orphaned Norwegian Huck Finn who found his true home at last on the cowboy frontier,” to his own relatively recent extended solo trek in the Beartooths. "Honyocker Dreams" implicitly encourages us to comprehend our origins, to become mindful of the often complex influences of place and people who have shaped us.

Brian Dillon teaches literature and writing at Montana State University Billings.