The Flood Girls by Richard Fifield (Literary Fiction)

Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A raucous novel about redemption, forgiveness, and tolerance (or lack thereof). Rachel Flood returns to Quinn, Montana (population 956) to make amends (AA — step 9) to the entire town — all of whom (especially her mother) hate her (and with good reason). She befriends the flamboyant 12-year old boy next door, is forced to join the local softball team (The Flood Girls) who are … not the best, and is coerced into tending her mother’s bar — The Dirty Shame.

The novel is full of outlandish characters — the large, scary, and violent Red Mabel who is also a most loyal friend, Black Mabel the local drug dealer, a bar full of lesbian silver miners, an array of religious characters with varying degrees of religiosity and forbearance, the local AA group (composed of older men from Rachel’s past), and the wildly diverse softball team. It’s also full of casual violence, stupidity, and intolerance as well as perseverance, kindness, and endurance. The style reminds me of John Irving’s books, with a little of Tom Wolfe’s “equal opportunity sneering” style mixed in. It is a detailed, engrossing, full picture of a (fictional) town, though definitely painted by an outsider looking in (and possibly reinforcing negative stereotypes of rural areas).

Despite the fact that the characters are probably not people I would befriend in real life, I loved them on the page. Now that the book is over, I miss them.

Ruthie Fear by Maxim Loskutoff (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

A story about a young girl growing up in a trailer in the Bitterroot Valley, just South of Missoula, Montana. Raised by her father when her mother abandons them, she alternates between absorbing his values and lifestyle and wishing she could have almost any other life. We follow her from age six through her early thirties as she tries to find her place in the world.

The book is beautifully written, evoking the wild beauty of the valley, surrounding mountains, and wildlife as well as depicting small town Montana life amid a sea of changes. We see the world through Ruthie’s eyes as she struggles to reconcile the violence and injustice that she abhors with her own inner darkness and the natural and man-made disasters that beset the Valley.

The overall tone of the book is (to me) depressing. Her perceptions of most (not all) of the men around her is as pathetic, angry, and beaten down by life. The story is a slow parade of natural and man-made disasters and the impact on the relatively impoverished people around her: fires, a giant earthquake, the mills closing and ensuing lack of work, the incursion of the “California carpetbaggers,” ski areas closed due to warming weather, thousands of geese killed from polluted ponds, etc. She is a constant witness to conflict and violence — against animals and against other people. She observes that much of the anger percolates through the hierarchy of locals: white settlers who have been there for generations, the Salish Indians (the “original” locals), and the constant influx of people who came fleeing someplace else — hippies, polygamist mormons, retirees. Everybody wants the others to disappear and nobody wants anyone new to show up.

The last chapter took a wild turn into left field. I don’t know where it came from, and I can’t decide if it was symbolic or something that was actually happening. I’m going with largely symbolic, but I don’t want to include any spoilers so you’ll have to read it and let me know your thoughts…

Overall I enjoyed reading this book — gorgeous writing, character depth, and a level of detail that made it all so palpable. I would have preferred a more balanced view of life in the area — I understand that this really was one person’s experience, but it painted the area as somewhat hopeless, full of victims who were unable to stem the tide of unwanted change (or adapt to it). It reminded me of Louise Erdrich books which I’ve stopped reading — incredibly beautifully done, but on the depressing side.

Thank you to W.W. Norton & Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 1st, 2020.