This book shows how a book can be woven out of shards that have been chiseled off the heartstone of the West and assembled in such a way as to make sense, to tell a story. It’s a postmodern western, but it’s a western nonetheless. While I read the book on a hot summer day, sitting in my hammock here in a village at the Appalachian edge of the Midwest, I started thinking of Mark Twain and Richard Brautigan, of Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, of all those strong regional voices that capture the spirit of various frontiers. This is the spirit of Wilkins’s book. He brings to life through fragments a time and a place, a contemporary West in which mothers die not from bear attacks but from meth overdoses, a world in which the river runs dry every summer, possibly the action of an angry god, but more plausibly because of climate change. And it’s able to tell these stories through brief snippets, paragraphs, and one- to two-page pieces linked only by a shared vision of the world they create.
This book is visionary. It is admirably consistent and meditative, relentlessly honest in its rejection of any romantic version of the West, and reverent before stars and morning, before the earth and the people who have survived on it. Joe Wilkins honors them by telling their stories.
Thanks to Kathleen Kirk for this amazing review, up now at Escape Into Life, of my second book of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward. A few of my favorite lines:
Notes from the Journey Westward, by Joe Wilkins, reads like wisdom to me. “There’s nothing to be done / about hope,” he writes, in “Hardscrabble Prairie Triptych,” about cracking open mussel shells in search of pearls, and I feel directly addressed, required to examine the persistence and hopelessness of hope in myself, in us all, in the human animal: “We crack them open / anyway, shells bright as a boy’s eyes, / scoop out each stinking handful of meat.” The willingness to shift from “I” to “we” here is a clue to the risk and power of these poems, the great claim that one story can, like a covered wagon, carry many, and that history is somehow alive in the present moment.
More than a memoir, the book is an indictment of the ideology of rugged individualism so deeply rooted in the arid American West. …This book brings to mind novelist Wallace Stegner’s stories of those like his father who fell victim to the rain-follows-the-plow myth. …The Mountains and the Fathers is another poignant lesson in reconciling ourselves with our natural environment. …“We need to remember how it really was and is out West, and we need to tell those true new stories,” Wilkins writes. The Mountains and the Fathers is one of “true new stories,” well told.
Pleased to see that The Mountain and the Fathers is featured today on Powell’s Bookstore’s Daily Dose, a newsletter featuring recent reader comments. Thanks, Stuart in Fort Collins, for the kind, perceptive comments about The Mountain and the Fathers:
This is a tremendously powerful narrative of growing up in a harsh and unforgiving climate with a way and manner of life that few probably understand exists in the modern US today. Having lost his father at a young age, the author explores where he found example, guidance and protection as well as where he failed to find those components in the community that exists uniquely in Big Dry and Hi-line of Montana. Wilkins is very successful in conveying how the landscape and community reduce most elements of life to essentials and ways of escape. The story of what the author had to do to keep the coal burning furnace running and how that was just a fact of life no different that eating or sleeping had a strong effect on the perspective that readers can glean from the comparison to the truly few serious trials that most of us face on a daily basis.
A great read and one that has a great deal of staying power. I’ve known a fair number of people who grew up in that area of Montana and Wilkins story rings very true. The Mountain and the Fathers can provide a valuable relief against which to gauge the “inconveniences” of life as well as the effect of recognizing where a father-less boy finds the attributes in men that he will absorb and live up to as well as those he can reject and how to compare himself to the stories and perception of dead father who in some ways has been mythologized.
“Spiritual” and “A Prayer” tread new ground in the book’s final pages, and these lines feel both appropriate to the book as a whole and the particular, engaging aesthetic cultivated throughout: “But even in this joy I know enough / of pain and shame to say that’s all wrong: No one / deserves this world.”