Montana Women by Toni Volk. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 310 pages.
San Diego resident and ex-Montana woman Toni Volk explains, "Where I come from there are two points of view, one from the perspective of dense forest and high altitude, and the other looking up from the flat open lands of wind and prairie. Here landscape of one extreme or another shapes everything: the region, the people and, surely, my writing . . . . It's a polarity that stays with you wherever you go, one I no longer try to shake."
What shapes her characters in her first novel, "Montana Women," is the stretching, flat land--no end in sight, few mountains, few hopes rising into the sky. They are full of the hunger that Volk describes as a "longing on the prairie, a feeling that I can only compare to grief." The main characters, two sisters, long and grieve, for what, we don't know. Volk hints at a childhood with a father who was alternately loving and angrily cruel. The women are faced, perhaps, with gluing an unrecognizable family life back together.
"Montana Women" opens in 1944; the two sisters, Pearl and Etta, struggle to make sense of daily living after the deaths of both their parents and their men. The women gradually learn to survive emotionally, sometimes through the little pockets of dreams, spirits, or clairvoyance they turn up in their desolate plane of living. Surprising in a novel of otherwise grey realism, Volk's unlocked door to spiritualism hints of a glimpse beyond the mundane--only a glimpse though, because the characters are alone when it comes to bridging the dark longing in their lives.
Pearl, ignoring an ominousness foretold by her sister's playing cards, marries a rancher named Buck and produces a daughter, Katie. Farm life makes Pearl strong and capable, but her marriage becomes distant and cold due to Buck's womanizing. Etta stays in the city. She lives alone in the family home and maintains an unrewarding job. Despite their continuing dependence upon one another, the sisters confide little, for "in their family rupture and dissolution were worn privately, with discomfort, mortification even, like tight or stained undergarments."
This sadness worn so privately combined with an unbreakable bond unites Etta, Pearl, and Katie in a triangle of connected yet silent women in this harsh landscape. And Volk unfolds this harsh landscape layer by layer. There's the rugged Montana of rough weather, hard men, and hardscrabble farm work but there's also 1944 Great Falls where a working woman must withstand a cultural winter of rejection, exclusion, and second-class citizenry. There's the inhospitable territory of marriage as well as the howling landscape of the mind. We all might be living in this Montana.
And there is no pat resolution to "Montana Women." Katie isn't born into a green and protective world to thrive--she is left either on the isolated ranch to be raped by her hard-drinking father or in the city with her mother and aunt to learn their lessons of private shame and silence.
As the cliché goes, it's not really their story; it's our story. Silently, without advice or prescription, Volk lays the cards on the table. Montana is less a place than a state of mind--the vast and familiar prairies and peaks of American reticence.