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The Willow Fieldby William Kittredge
Synopses & Reviews
Annie Dillard has called him "one of our finest writers." Jane Smiley has declared his voice "prophetic." Now, at long last — after two collections of stories, another two of essays, and the heralded memoir A Hole in the Sky — William Kittredge gives us his first novel: an epic that stretches over the twentieth century, from the settlers, cowboys, and gamblers who opened up this country to the landholders and politicians who ran it.
Rossie Benasco's horseback existence begins when he's fifteen and culminates in a thousand-mile drive of more than two hundred head of horses through the Rockies into Calgary, through Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, across virgin wilderness, failed homesteads, ghost towns, squatters' camps, and Indian settlements. It's a journey that leads him, ultimately, to Eliza Stevenson and a love so powerful that his vocational aimlessness is focused only by his desire to spend his life with her: whether on her family ranch in the Bitterroot, which will prove their best refuge from a century fraught with war and civil strife, or on sojourns in Hawaii and Guam during World War II, or in the horse-trading business in California, or on the campaign trail throughout Montana.
A novel rich with landscapes and characters, The Willow Field chronicles a way of life nearly extinct at the novel's beginning and surviving only in memory upon its close at century's end. And as these people pivot between the ghosts of the old frontier and the modern world that engulfs them — from the uprooted lives of the Blackfeet tribes left listless and betrayed to the ravages of war, McCarthyism, urban riots, and insidious land development — the perennial imperatives of ambition, responsibility, and love prove as vital as ever, revealed as they are with the conviction, humor, and humanity for which Kittredge has long been acclaimed.
"Memoirist and story writer Kittredge's first novel (after The Nature of Generosity and Hole in the Sky) tells the life story of Rossie Benasco, the ornery son of a Reno, Nev., casino pit boss who, at age 15 in the early 1930s, takes work as a 'wrango boy' at a Nevada ranch owned by retired rodeo legend Slivers Flynn. Rossie's intimate relationship with Slivers's daughter causes Slivers to give Rossie a choice: run a couple hundred horses to Calgary or stay and 'have a mess of redheaded kids.' Rossie chooses the thousand-mile trek and, at trail's end, falls for Eliza Stevenson, the beautiful and pregnant (the father "went batshit" and is in prison for assault) daughter of a Scottish businessman. Eliza's father deeds the family's Montana farm to Rossie to nudge him into marrying Eliza, and the couple seal their relationship with the birth of a son and a wedding. Kittredge moves Rossie along with a compelling confidence: Rossie learns to run a farm, watches his son mature and adopts an orphaned girl before joining the Marine Corps in December 1941; he is shot by a fellow soldier and spends most of his tour working as a supply clerk. Years later, his children grown, Rossie gets involved in local and state politics, which proves to be as perilous as the Pacific theater. Kittredge balances earthy dialogue with lyrical prose to create a memorable evocation of the American west. (Oct. 6)" Publishers Weekly Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
"Memoirist and story writer Kittredge's first novel (after The Nature of Generosity and Hole in the Sky) tells the life story of Rossie Benasco, the ornery son of a Reno, Nev., casino pit boss who, at age 15 in the early 1930s, takes work as a 'wrango boy' at a Nevada ranch owned by retired rodeo legend Slivers Flynn. Rossie's intimate relationship with Slivers's daughter causes Slivers to give Rossie a choice: run a couple hundred horses to Calgary or stay and 'have a mess of redheaded kids.' Rossie chooses the thousand-mile trek and, at trail's end, falls for Eliza Stevenson, the beautiful and pregnant (the father 'went batshit' and is in prison for assault) daughter of a Scottish businessman. Eliza's father deeds the family's Montana farm to Rossie to nudge him into marrying Eliza, and the couple seal their relationship with the birth of a son and a wedding. Kittredge moves Rossie along with a compelling confidence: Rossie learns to run a farm, watches his son mature and adopts an orphaned girl before joining the Marine Corps in December 1941; he is shot by a fellow soldier and spends most of his tour working as a supply clerk. Years later, his children grown, Rossie gets involved in local and state politics, which proves to be as perilous as the Pacific theater. Kittredge balances earthy dialogue with lyrical prose to create a memorable evocation of the American west." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The opening chapters of William Kittredge's new Western are so seductive you'll want to strap on spurs and light out for the territory. 'The Willow Field' spans most of the 20th century and describes a way of life that hung on for decades after the rest of the country slipped into the effete and poisonous modern age. But the most surprising thing about Kittredge's novel is that it's his first. After... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) dozens of essays and short stories and his memoir, 'Hole in the Sky,' it's easy to imagine that you must have read a novel by this 74-year-old writer before. In fact, he and Steven M. Krauzer, a colleague at the University of Montana, wrote nine Westerns under the pseudonym 'Owen Rountree' in the 1980s, but this time he's riding solo under his own name and calling the outing his debut. At the center of this epic is Rossie Benasco. We meet him at 15, working as a 'wrango boy on the Neversweat, one of the vast Nevada empire ranches.' He's dropped out of school, with the approval of his loving but remarkably tolerant parents, and shacked up with his boss' daughter. Together they enjoy the kind of energetic, ever-ready, guilt-free sex that guys get to have in men's magazines. She's a good cook, too. It's enough to make you weep for the Old West. But soon enough Rossie feels anxious about settling and getting stuck with a bunch of kids. 'What I wonder,' he tells his mom, 'is how I'm going to amount to anything.' And so he abandons his first love — just for the summer, he tells her — and hires on with a team to drive 257 horses 1,000 miles to Calgary. Told in a series of gorgeous, jagged-edged anecdotes, it's the ultimate macho adventure: seven weeks of hard horseback riding, eating over an open fire and sleeping under the stars. This long trek is also a showcase for the startling beauty of Kittredge's prose and his knowledge of the West: 'A long day of backland roads across Nevada and into the Oregon deserts followed, past sage-covered ridges with dark mahogany brush up where snows collected in winter drifts and not a house or a traveler or any other person. ... Mallard drakes flew up as the horse herd jostled through a brokendown gateway to the water, the birds circling and then returning to the tiny weave of desert swamp.' In Calgary, Rossie meets a strange, wildly independent young woman named Eliza, who, like all the women in this novel, can't wait to get Rossie in bed (or field or creek or barn). She's pregnant by an incarcerated Indian, but she steals Rossie's heart, anyhow. 'What she's like,' he tells a friend, 'is there's a field of horses, and one good one, and any damned fool can see the difference.' Who couldn't get lucky with lines like that? Thoroughly whipped, Rossie pursues Eliza back to her parents' house and discovers that, while the rest of the country wallows in the Depression, her family is extraordinarily wealthy. Amid the vast plains of Montana, they live in an oasis of wit and sophistication that only money could enable. Her father's 'talk was often nothing Rossie could understand,' Kittredge writes, 'particularly when it careened into the vagaries of literature and philosophy.' Until this point, the novel seems committed to the tale of a young cowboy 'going off to be his own man, to have his own style,' but at Eliza's house the epic adventure loses its hi-yo momentum. Rossie tries to decide if he's selling out by staying with Eliza and accepting her parents' largess. 'Are these people something I could amount to?' he wonders. 'I'm trying to stick with her without turning into a fool who fetches and carries.' Rossie can feel himself being domesticated, and that alarms him. Arguing with her one day, he blurts out, 'All I want ... is you and horses and nobody ordering me around,' but in these languid chapters that simple longing just fades away. Though all this is sensitively and intricately drawn, the pacing is bovine, and readers mesmerized by the first section of the novel are likely to bolt. Toward the end, the story suddenly picks up, only to gallop too quickly through the rest of Rossie's life (marine, gubernatorial candidate, grandfather). Kittredge has clearly switched horses on us again and decided to pursue a spotty survey of 20th-century history and land-management issues that would read better in one of his essays. It's a disappointing diffusion of the book's initial energy and beauty, its promise to discover 'what could heal the abrasions suffered and delivered while going off to be your own man with horses.' Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"As much as this powerful novel is infatuated with the American West — its grave succession that ends in modernity, its land and animals as viewed by humans, its conflicts and trials, its quiet — it is also a novel in love with language itself, as stargazers are in love with light. Kittredge's novel is ample and satisfying and luminous. It's surely the book he was most meant to write." Richard Ford
"Love, sorrow, frustration...it's all here. Kittredge uses strong, earthy language to tell the story...laying his meanings between the lines like a modern Ernest Hemingway..." Library Journal
"Luminous....An exploration of the magnetic fields that draw people together and push them apart....Kittredge knows that deal, and he gets it exactly right." Bill Ott, Booklist (Starred Review)
"The Willow Field is a big, wild-hearted American saga. An instant classic." Gretel Ehrlich
"The Willow Field is the shit. Historically and geographically sweeping; soaringly lyrical yet so tuned to the terse wisdom of its horseman hero it sends chills all the way down to your saddle and into and on out the horse. William Kittredge is the bard laureate of the American West, and this novel will be bringing people joy thousands of days from today." David James Duncan
"The Willow Field is a Western in the richest sense of that word. There is a taproot here, and something elemental about the American West comes pushing through the prose itself. I read it as a love song too, part lament, part passionate embrace, by a writer obsessed with a complex terrain he knows from the bottom up, from the inside out. I salute Bill Kittredge for what he has given us in this abundant and heartful book." James D. Houston
About the Author
William Kittredge is the author, most recently, of The Nature of Generosity, and with Annick Smith he edited The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology. He grew up in Oregon and now lives in Missoula, where for many years he taught at the University of Montana.
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