“Montana: Real Place, Real People”
Alan P. Kesselheim
and Thomas Lee
Reading “Montana: Real Place, Real People” (Companion Press) is a little bit like sitting with one of your favorite uncles, hearing him tell stories about people he’s known. This collection of essays by Alan Kesselheim, who is a regular contributor to Montana Quarterly, is wonderfully written, with accompanying photographs by Thomas Lee.
Kasselheim’s knack for making the mundane relevant creates a wonderful patchwork of the more subtle aspects of Montana, through people you might ordinarily overlook. As with those told by your favorite uncle, some of the stories are better than others, but as a whole, they combine to tell a larger story about a place and people in danger of becoming forgotten.
The collection starts appropriately, with the symbolic figure of the rural postal carrier, Robin Puckett, and takes us on a slow journey through the back roads of Montana to visit people like Elsie Fox, a 101-year-old political activist from Miles City; world-class knife-maker Josh Smith; and biofuel producers Brett Earl and Logan Fisher, who decided to save the cost of transporting their crop by developing their own production plant in the middle of nowhere.
But Kesselheim doesn’t shy away from the darker shades of our little corner of the world. He introduces us to Frank Dryman, a man who killed someone and then evaded the law for 40 years. He also tells the story of Joe Kampf, a hiker who found a boot just below Granite Peak. That may not seem like much of a story except that the boot was accompanied by the owner’s foot. Kesselheim’s gift for storytelling sometimes leads to surprising conclusions, as with the foot story, where we never find out whose foot it was.
The point of these pieces is usually focused on what we should learn about ourselves. The last two pieces in the book are particularly fraught with important messages. The story of Bob Staffanson, who founded not only the Billings Symphony Orchestra but also the American Indian Institute, is a study in inspiration, as Kesselheim relates how annual meetings since 1977 among Indian leaders have created a spirit of hope in the Native community and how this dynamic has had an unexpected impact on him as well.
But the most moving story of all may be that of Richard Stewart, a man who suffered from the most horrible kinds of abuse as a child and went on to a predictable life of fighting to defend himself from the dangers of the world. After being sentenced to die for killing a man in a fight, Stewart was ready for his fate. Even asked for it. But the night before his sentencing, he was moved to pray for the first time in his life. Kesselheim describes the moment: “He put a blanket over his head to block out the ever-present cacophony of prison. He prayed. He felt something he’d never felt before. A presence. A stillness. Everything went quiet. Held in that moment. Steward made a vow.’
You can imagine the rest.