"People love to tell their stories. I was really amazed by the optimism of people in Montana despite some of these towns were—some of the county seats, especially in eastern Montana were in pretty bad shape. It just blew my mind how people were still clinging to the idea that things will eventually turn around. I guess the biggest surprise was how. . . it takes a lot to kill the spirit of this place." -- Russell Rowland
The following are highlights from a conversation with Russell Rowland about his book, Arbuckle. Click to listen now or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: When did you know you were writing a trilogy?
Russell Rowland: Well, when the sequel came out (The Watershed Years) I thought I was done with it, in fact I think I told anyone who was interested that I wasn’t going to write anymore after that. But, I became pretty fascinated with the whole vigilante period in our state’s history and . . . I wanted to try to explore how that impacted the people that lived that part of the country and I also wanted to try to explore what it was like for people in that time and place to deal with rape and other violent acts because there was so much of it. Obviously it was a time when people didn’t really talk about it so that was another thing I was really interested in trying to explore with this book: how did that affect marriages, friendships, and all that?
One of the things that struck me is that there seem to be some eerie parallels between your book and modern times: including this notion of “fake news,” or news that isn’t well reported; the #metoo movement and rape, abortion, and sexual assault; and women’s voices rising up. How conscious of those parallels were you as you were writing this.
Very. I wanted to convey how little has changed. Especially when Catherine goes public with her rape I wanted to show how I know enough about that region and the way people deal with that kind of stuff to know that if anyone did that it would be very much frowned upon. So I wanted to explore how that would play out. And the abortion thing too. I wanted to delve in to how difficult it must have been for someone to make that decision back in that time period.
And the risks associated.
So you’ve mentioned Catherine. Catherine Boland is a character. Can you give us just a character sketch of her?
Well, she’s a spitfire! And apparently my great-grandmother—that is her name and that was her personality too. One of my favorite stories about her is how she rode in a blizzard to Alzada, MT to work at the polls—way before she was allowed to vote, but she just felt so strongly about being part of the process. She was very involved in starting the Women’s Club in Albion & Alzada area. She was someone who was very socially conscious and outspoken. I had a lot of fun with that character.
I was wondering, it seemed like it. You vacillate points of view between first person, Catherine’s perspective, and then this 3rd person omniscient. . . What was it like to inhabit Catherine’s voice?
Yeah that was a challenge. It was the first time I’ve written from a woman’s point of view. It was hard. It was harder than I thought it would be but I just tried to get in touch with her humanness, I guess. Especially with the marriage, I think that was probably the most challenging part was trying to imagine what it must have been like to be with somebody who’s so incommunicative and so shut down.
In what ways are you like Catherine?
Probably that I get overwhelmed with emotions sometimes.
In what ways are you like George Arbuckle?
Well George is a very good example of most of the men I grew up with and that I became: very out of touch with how to just cope with the interactions with other people, especially family members. I struggled with that a lot, especially when I was a younger man.
You write a lot about Montana. What do you love about Montana?
Hmmm. . . that’s hard to sum up, but it’s obviously beautiful. There is something about the people here that is completely unique. I’ve lived in 12 different states since I graduated from High School so I know this to be true because everywhere I’ve lived there’s this phenomena where you meet people and you say, “there’s something about that person,” and turns out they are from Montana. It’s happened to me so many times. There’s a pride in this place that is also very unique. When I lived on the east coast and you asked people where they’re from they didn’t say their state, they always named their town. Montana is. . . there’s a unique connection here between the people and this place, for sure. So I’ve always been very intrigued about what it is and I think it’s more than just the beauty. I mean there’s something about spirit here that’s really unique and special.
You recently wrote a book where you went to all 56 counties and talked with people.
What was the most surprising thing that happened on that adventure?
Well, that whole book was a surprise. It was so much fun. I was expecting to run into a lot more resistance on that trip. But it was absolutely amazing how every town I went to and told people what I was doing, they just couldn’t wait to tell their stories. People love to tell their stories. I was really amazed by the optimism of people in Montana despite some of these towns were—some of the county seats, especially in eastern Montana were in pretty bad shape. It just blew my mind how people were still clinging to the idea that things will eventually turn around. I guess the biggest surprise was how. . . it takes a lot to kill the spirit of this place. And then on the other hand, you’ve got this incredibly high suicide rate. So there’s this sort of duality to this place that’s fascinating to me also. The fact that people won’t talk about what’s bothering them is also a big. . . it’s like the other side of the coin, the denial.
About the Book:
When Catherine Boland meets a shy young ranch hand at the bank where she works, she has no idea that he just took part in a recent vigilante hanging that she has been very outspoken about. And although George Arbuckle was not a willing participant in that hanging, he worries that once Catherine learns about his participation, he will lose her for good. This is just the first of the challenges facing this young couple in late 19th century Montana. Arbuckle, the third book in a trilogy about a ranch family in southeastern Montana, also takes on issues of rape, abortion, and the difficulty of developing a happy life in the early homesteader days.
About the Author:
Russell Rowland has published four novels (In Open Spaces, The Watershed Years, High and Inside, and Arbuckle), as well as Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey. He completed an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He currently lives in Billings, Montana, where he teaches workshops and works one-on-one with other writers.