A man returns to the small Western town where he grew up and finds that his family history won’t stay buried in this debut novel.
In 1979, Joe Meeks is a construction worker with a penchant for getting thrown off jobs for second-guessing the engineering. He’s on a building site in New York City when his cousin Evan Gallantine shows up with both bad and good news: on the one hand, Joe’s long-estranged father has died; on the other, his passing clears the way to sell the Meeks’ hardscrabble ranch for a handsome sum to dam developers. Joe goes to the town of Meagher, Montana, and then up to the Meeks ranch, to try to convince his ornery 90-year-old grandmother Frances, the last holdout among the local ranchers, to sell the spread. Joe brings along Wade, a 12-year-old boy who looks like him but whom he’s reluctant to call his son, as he reconnects with Meagher’s colorful denizens. As Wade falls in love with the ranch, Joe has misgivings about selling out and running from a guilty past. The novel effectively explores the conflict between yearning for the wider world and staying rooted in place, no matter how wretched the land and searing the memories. Feeling a bit like a mashup of Larry McMurtry and the 1990s TV series Northern Exposure, Ellison’s tale features wonderfully evocative descriptions of Montana’s majestic landscapes and richly atmospheric cow-town settings. Amid well-paced scenes and punchy, pitch-perfect dialogue, it also includes vivid, sharply individuated characters, including Joe’s rapscallion ex-con uncle Harlo; Father Sterling, whose Sunday services are popular for their copiously alcoholic Communion libations; feisty redhead Marly Croft, an old flame of Joe’s who wants to turn her decrepit Grand Hotel into a swanky inn to cater to Evan’s visions of Meagher as an Aspen-style resort; and Marly’s even feistier daughter Anne, whose native truculence (“What’re you lookin at?”) subsides into an infatuation with Joe. There’s also the elderly Frances, an ex-deputy who once shot a robber and then fielded a marriage proposal from the crook’s partner. The final result is first-rate storytelling with a powerful emotional undercurrent.
A haunting but hopeful story of the new West and the unlikely passions it stirs.