Ruth McLaughlin, Don Flores, Barbara Theroux (MBA organizer), Susan Resnick

It’s good to be home after an intense few days of Montana Book Awards events in Billings at the combined Montana Library Association/Mountain Plains Library Association meeting. I had a great time.

On Wednesday evening I “opened out of town” with my talk on the MBA Book Awards at Hastings Book Store in Billings. I’m sure the warm up will help me do a better job when reprise the talk at the Bozeman’s Country Bookshelf on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Here’s the announcement of the Bozeman event.

More important, I got to meet three of the winning authors at the MBA presentation ceremony on Thursday. It’s always fun to compare notes with fellow writers.

I had a long chat with Ruth McLaughlin, who won the 2010 award for her marvelous book, Bound Like Grass. We compared notes on growing up on Montana ranches, she on the east side of our vast state, I on the west side. Our biographies have some interesting parallels in addition to growing up rural in the 50s and 60s. We both used the University of Montana as our escape route to the larger world; we knew some of the same professors, and—most important—we met our spouses there.  My wife, Tam, and her husband, Mike, were classmates at Great Falls High School and they seemed to enjoy reminiscing.

I also discovered a small connection with Dan Flores, who wrote the MBA Honor Book, Visions of the Big Sky. It’s a beautiful book with 140 plates representing art portraying the Northern Rockies.  All the MBA judges reported the same reaction when they first saw it: “Oh no! Now I’ve got to read a coffee table book.”  But they hastened to add that when they began to read it they got hooked on Dan’s erudite and expansive essays.

I asked Dan how he happened to write it. He told me that he used to write a column for The Big Sky Journal called “Images of the West” and the book is largely a compilation of those pieces.  Dan stopped being a regular columnist for the magazine, but the editor decided to retain the column title.  I wrote an article under the label entitled “Entrepreneurs on the Edges of Yellowstone.”

Susan Kushner Resnick came to Billings all the way from Boston to accept an Honor Book designation for Goodbye Wifes and Daughters, a marvelous account of the mine disaster that killed nearly 80 men at Bear Creek, Montana, in 1943.  I wish I had found more time to talk to her about weaving together disparate strands of research into a compelling narrative. I’m sure she could have offered me some good tips on how to approach my next book, Encounters in Yellowstone.

I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet Kevin Canty, who won an Honor Book designation for Everything: A Novel.  Kevin’s car broke down in Bozeman and he didn’t make it to the ceremony.  I would have loved to talk to him about how he makes writing about running water and jumping fish come to life.

We also didn’t hear from Nathaniel Philbrick, who won an Honor Book designation for his book The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  I’m sure he’s hunkered down somewhere working through piles of books and papers doing research for his next book.

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— Photo by Mike McLaughlin

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