The Stories that Really Matter: A Reading of Percy Wollaston

By Michael L Umphrey

Homesteading, by Percy Wollaston. Published by The Lyons Press, 1997.

At one point during a conversation I had with an eighth-grader over the summer, she cited from memory Sam’s words at the conclusion of the movie The Two Towers. I quote the words at some length because Sarah quoted them at some length. The fact that she had cared enough to get those words into her head and to hang onto them is important:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. . .Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something. . .There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Sam says these words as he and Frodo proceed onward at great effort and despite great peril. As any teacher would, I thrilled a bit at Sarah’s demonstration that young people are still idealistic and still respond to stories more wholesome than hip-hop and more troubling than Harry Potter.

This is important because we live, like Sam and Frodo, by being caught up in the stories that are loose in the world. Since some of them are not very good, hampering rather than bolstering our efforts, we need to be literary critics of a sort to find our way. When we get caught in the wrong stories, our efforts are vexed and our dreams turn vain.

Thinking along such lines, I was troubled when I heard several people at an education conference succumbing to pessimism about Montana’s future. A teacher said our small towns were dying. A historian lamented the bleakness of the places she passed. And a writer suggested that those who could get out had gotten out and that those who remained were isolated in despair and distrust.

That’s not the Montana I experience. It’s true enough that judging our towns by the standards of, say, a strip mall, can make them seem somewhat incomplete. But it seems just as likely that any people that builds more than a half mile of strip mall may not have a very compelling vision of what the world is for or what is worth doing or wanting.

When I think of Montana places I think mostly of families and landscapes and the way the two interact here. Having truly seen the moon rise over the Snowy Mountains or the sun set over the Missouri Breaks or the storm clouds pile up over the Sweetgrass Hills, one is unlikely to be unduly dazzled by the marquee on Times Square. And having eaten fresh-caught trout with one’s children on the rocky shores of Mollman Lakes, one would have to be ungrateful to hanker after a gourmet meal prepared for profit.

This is not to minimize the economic difficulties some of us are facing. It is only to remember that the surest way out of a bad story is into another story and that there are always other stories. The way the same set of facts and events can be woven into different stories is illustrated by Percy Wollaston’s memoir, Homesteading, set in Montana during the homestead boom that got into high gear around 1910. The memoir tells one story while the introduction by Seattle writer Jonathan Raban tells a different one.

Raban places Wollaston’s work amid the preoccupations of many mainstream historians. In doing so, he finds Homesteading “a story of a colossal failure” (xvi). He sees Montana’s homesteaders as the victims of a dastardly fraud perpetrated by the forces of darkness—corporate marketers. Though he admires the courage and endurance of the Montanans, his big story is the way they were tricked into catastrophe. His introduction is a brief version of the script that won him the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996 for Bad Land, An American Romance.

But that’s not the story Percy Wollaston wanted to tell or did tell. To be sure, he is an astute and thoughtful man, aware of the issues that capture Raban’s passions. He noted, for example, that the 1912 sinking of the Titanic “marked some sort of turning point in the attitude of people all over the country” (56-57). He observed that “trusted and supposedly competent authority” didn’t make good decisions. “The great and the humble, the dolt and the wise, all seem to have been living in some sort of play world where everything would turn out for the best” (58), he said.

Wollaston wasn’t living in a play world. He didn’t fancy himself an important man whose voice would change the big things, so he was not very interested in railing against the chicaneries perpetrated by the big players, though such chicaneries may be as real as Raban tells them.

Success in the world Wollaston cares about is measured by the sort of character one becomes. Adversity, including failure, is often the occasion for developing and displaying that character. When Jim Morrow lost his cow just before his first blizzard on the prairie, he tracked her till darkness then led her home, where he tied her to the foot of his bed before stoking up the fire and falling into an exhausted sleep. Wollaston noted that the storm “changed Jim from a boy to a man who ever afterward faced poverty, hardship, or any other adversity with a calm optimism” (115).

Wollaston’s story is mainly about calmness and optimism, about people coming together and finding a way. In the Montana he describes, newcomers are welcomed and scrutinized for talents that might enhance life. People sacrifice to organize a school, buying windows, digging wells, and hiring teachers. They form a community club to discuss their problems and share their solutions. When they go to town, they leave their houses unlocked, so traveling strangers can stop and fix themselves a meal.

Such stories may be more useful for kids today than yet more tales of corporate malfeasance. Many of our youth are already as distrustful of large corporations as they are cynical about official pronouncements. But they are hungry for stories that reveal the sources of goodness in the world.

The society the homesteaders built turned out not to be sustainable—though, for that matter, neither was Rome—but it was a society that had its goodnesses. The building of that society—as well as what became of it—is a story worth carrying around in our heads.

Wollaston offers quiet wisdom, noting that people today suffer from “some lack of looking forward” (112). The homesteaders did not build a good society by focusing on what was wrong with the world. “The next meal might be potatoes and water gravy but you didn’t hear anything about hardship unless somebody burned out or broke a leg” (112).

Though their prospects were surely not brighter than our own, those hardy pioneers could build a good society because they stayed committed to a better future. “There were people from almost every walk of life and status of education, but they learned little of each other beyond what each planned to make of his place and plans for the future of the community” (112).

Though the closing pages of Raban’s book are taken up with an ironic meditation on the meaning of the Unabomber —another writer passing through Montana preoccupied with our betrayal by the world’s princes—on the penultimate page of Percy’s story we are offered more hopeful fare: he told of the time he heard Jim Morrow’s father upstairs alone, dancing a jig to music from a phonograph, “just serene and happy to be at home” (129).

In the story Raban emphasizes, we may learn such things as the importance of truth in advertising laws and such—useful, and important in a way. But one gets the feeling that he wants us to be angry. The story Wollaston tells is quite different. We learn how some of our fellows dealt with trouble, including injury, sickness, economic misfortune, bad weather, and death—troubles to which we are not strangers. Wollaston’s theme is human character as it emerged amid the whips and scorns of a particular place and time, and one gets the feeling that he wants us to be wise and strong.

At one point, Jim Morrow dug two dry holes by hand, trying to build a well. On his third try he ran into bedrock at about twelve feet. Things seemed hopeless. He prayed, and then he chiseled and hammered through about a foot of sandstone. Below it, he found good water.

A useful story, that.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 07/13 at 10:23 PM
2004 Michael L. Umphrey