A comprehensive look at the volatile history of the border territory separating Montana and Canada.
NPR commentator LaDow’s debut explores in both chronological and human terms the shifting fortunes of this arid prairie region, beginning with the age of Manifest Destiny and the waning of the Indian Wars. She sees Sitting Bull’s 1881 surrender, following his victory over Custer and several years of refuge in Canada, as a metaphor for the transformations enacted by this harsh, vast land on the many ethnic and religious groups who settled there. LaDow explores in great detail the slow development over the 19th century of increasingly rowdy, centralized communities like Medicine Hat, Saskatchewan, and Chinook, Montana, paying attention to the human costs of competitiveness and bigotry and offering good depictions of many significant figures, such as incompetent Mounted Policeman Frank Dickens (son of Charles) and Louis Riel, leader of a rebellion by Canada’s Métis people. Throughout, the author is sensitive to the traumas endured by various native tribes, who saw their old ways of existence die along the Medicine Line. Her narrative has many powerful moments, as when we glimpse the ghost communities that dotted the landscape in the early 20th century after speculator James Hill’s artificially created “land rush” foundered due to repeated droughts and other natural catastrophes that caused the practitioners of “dry farming” to flee their homesteads in droves. Wallace Stegner, who was interviewed for this project, termed the Medicine Line region of his childhood “the capital of an unremembered past.” LaDow ably captures that past, limning the scope of the many changes and cultural conflicts that penetrated this stark region, even though her prose is often turgid and her points repetitive.
Despite its flaws, the book tells a story of considerable importance to Medicine Liners, their far-flung descendants, and students of the bitter culture clashes endemic during the era of western expansion.