High Plains Highlights

It’s been a week since I came home from the High Plains Bookfest in Billings, and I’ve been trying to shape a narrative in my mind. The trip, the people, the city, the events, the books; we talked about the weekend through the long nine hour drive home.  Robert, husband-chauffeur, Shirley, good friend and roadie through many of the travels involved in writing The Boy, were as delighted as I was with the trip.  No real shape has emerged, and I’ve been telling people that I’m on sabbatical from writing, so why not just list the highlights and let this be a collage:

—The Plains. I haven’t been to Montana in many years, and in fact my strongest memories are of a couple of TGIF trips across the border to Curly Bob’s bar in Sweetgrass when I was working for Alberta Social Services in Lethbridge, my first social work job back in … well, you really don’t need to know how long ago. The other memory is of a boyfriend who became a deadweight. I’d met him through a computer dating adventure (which I will write about some day) and when I tired of him I was glad that he returned to Ontario.  When he sought me out in Lethbridge the next summer, en route to San Francisco he said, I offered immediately to drive him to the border.  I dumped him at Coutts and you’ll have to wait for the rest of the story. The landscape!  I’d brought book tapes for the car but we didn’t need them.

—The people. We had just checked in at the Dude Rancher Lodge, a funky historic lodging in downtown Billings, and as though he was scripted, a lean tall cowboy meandered through with his spurs a-jingle.  Cowboys everywhere, the real deal.  And in almost equal supply, academics, and of course the folks from the library.  After my reading, a lovely man named Michael came up to tell me about the nine nations of North America.  I’d started out with my thanks to the festival organizers for including Canadians and insisted that there was no north/south literary border. But what Michael was excited to tell me was that I’d engaged him as soon as I began to speak. My voice, he said, was exactly that of his mother who could do a wicked imitation of the “Canadian accent”.  Do we really say “abooot” instead of “abowt”?  Who knew, eh? Everywhere, friendly people and a warm welcome for the Canadians. My sister Canadian on the shortlists was Adele Dueck, from Lucky Lake SK who was nominated in the Writing by Women category for her YA novel.

—Billings. We’d never been there, and knowing that the entire population of Montana would fit into Calgary, we expected just another small arid prairie city. Billings is a well-treed treasure, tucked up against the rim of a deep canyon, bordered on its other side by the Yellowstone River. Many of the historic buildings of the beautifully rejuvenated downtown, like many Calgary buildings, are of sandstone. We went for coffee on Saturday morning to a roasterie two blocks from the Dude Rancher and when we came out, were puzzled by the number of people sitting on curbs, lining the street.  A parade?  No, a friendly couple told us. There was a rodeo on in Billings that weekend, and the cattlemen’s association (NILE) had organized a cattle drive through downtown.  Fifty head were coming through. We were on our way to a reading and being Calgarians, I’m afraid fifty head was not enough to entice us to stay.

—The Events and the books. Friday afternoon was given over to the them of “Montana’s Home”, readings and presentations of which we attended two: Handraised: The Barns of Montana (the beautiful coffee table book that won the non-fiction category in which The Boy was shortlisted); Montana’s One Room Schoolhouses (another gorgeous book of photography and history traced through the tiny schoolhouses of not so long ago) that I’m predicting will be nominated for next year’s awards. Then a welcome reception and a chance to meet other authors and the festival organizers. Saturday celebrated all the nominated books with readings and discussion. I had the pleasure of reading with David Mogen, author of Honyocker Dreams: Montana Memories, a beautifully-wrought memoir, and Lael Morgan, author of  Wanton West: Madams, Money, Murder, and the Wild Women of Montana’s Frontier.  What’s not to be intrigued about with a title like that?

Saturday evening, the awards banquet and more authors and books and celebration. Tom McGuane was the keynote speaker and one of my favourite quips by this novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker was that he sometimes tells people he’s a backhoe operator, just to give himself some credibility. We also loved the food, which puzzled us in a pleasant way until we found out that it too was to celebrate “home”.  Comfort food:  meat loaf, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, pork chops in mushroom gravy. Centrepieces for the tables: piles of books, all of the books that were entered but were not finalists were there for the taking. This struck me as a bit of sad irony at first, but then I decided it was a great way to celebrate all of the entries. After the awards ceremony we had the pleasure of a party at the home of Corby Skinner, one of the festival organizers. I’m blaming Corby’s cat for my declaration this week that no author is complete without a cat. So now we have Rosie, freshly adopted from the city animal shelter. Rosie thanks you, Corby!

My only regret is that I didn’t have the opportunity to meet every writer.  What a fine celebration and what an honour to have been included.  Thank you, High Plains Book Awards and the city of Billings.  We will be back someday.

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