HOMESTEADING: A Montana Family Album by Percy Wollaston

HOMESTEADING: A Montana Family Album

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An understated memoir about a lost time in a remote place. Late in life, Montana resident Percy Wollaston (1904-83) set down a series of autobiographical sketches for the benefit of his grandchildren. The manuscript found an interested outside reader in British journalist Jonathan Raban, who used it as a primary source for his book Bad Land (1996). Raban, who contributes a foreword to this book, made literature of Wollaston's life, but Wollaston is no slouch as a writer himself. He ably describes the hard life of pioneer families on the Great Plains, men and women like his parents who traveled westward with the railroad in the early decades of the 20th century to find a bit of fertile land they could call their own. But what they found was closer to a desert, ill-suited to most kinds of cultivation. ""The land itself was inexorable,"" he writes. ""The bed of some prehistoric ocean, it had tolerated only the creatures that were best able to survive, resisting even the elements."" The struggle to subdue the land broke many of those newcomers, Wollaston records; whole families were laid low by cold weather, drought, disease. As Raban notes, Wollaston is a keen student of detail, and his passing remarks on the way that, for example, plows were shaped to ensure the best tillage or how skunks were trapped for their pelts will be of much interest to students of Americana. Wollaston captures a Montana between eras, no longer the Old West but not yet quite settled. It was a time when, as he writes, cowpunchers still shot up a saloon because they thought it was expected of them--but then apologetically left money behind to cover the damage. As a document of the last days of the frontier, this guileless memoir is of much value.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
Page count: 160pp
Publisher: Lyons & Burford