In Open Spaces

by Russell Rowland

Published by HarperCollins

370 pages, 2002









Big Sky Writing

Reviewed by David Abrams


Topographically, Montana looks like a half-crumpled sheet of paper. The western side is wrinkled with mountains, puddled with lakes and sluiced by rivers. This is the part of the state which, when you run your fingers over a topo globe, feels like that papier-mâché project you made in second grade. But let your fingers travel eastward and somewhere around 109 degrees longitude the sheet of paper flattens out. Here, the landscape is barren of Rocky Mountain upthrust and the only waterfall you're likely to see is when a customer accidentally knocks a glass off the table at CC's Family Café in Glendive.

Miles City. Sanders. Sand Springs. Broadus. Even the names of the towns sound like prairie grass hissing in the wind. This unwrinkled side of the state can be unforgiving with its blizzards, droughts and skin-withering wind; but it can be just as beautiful with its skyscraper-size clouds, undulating hills and blanket of welcome silence. On some roads, you can drive for hours before seeing a car in the opposite lane. When you do, you lift one finger off the steering wheel by way of greeting then drive on, your mingled plumes of dust still hanging over the road like mist. It's not the easiest of places to live; you either love it, or you leave it.

I tell you all this by way of introduction to Russell Rowland's novel In Open Spaces so that you'll know you're entering a particular (and often peculiar) place when you open its pages. As you might expect from people who have been battered by bad weather and rotten luck but remain upright as stubborn cottonwoods, Eastern Montanans can be a quiet, determined group of folks. You don't have to be stoic to live here … but it helps. As one character in Rowland's novel observes, the land "beats the holy hell out of folks."

The family at the center of In Open Spaces, the Arbuckles, sure has taken its share of beatings, starting on page ten when the book's narrator, Blake, is standing in his eighth-grade classroom 50 miles from the family ranch and gets a heart-squeezing telegram from his mother: Brother George drowned in river. Those five words resonate throughout the rest of the novel, which follows the fortunes and misfortunes (but mostly misfortunes) of the Arbuckles from 1916 to 1946.

Blake suspects his older brother Jack might have had something to do with eldest brother George's death, but in true Montana fashion, he says nothing about it to anyone else. The family also keeps its collective trap shut when hot-blooded Jack gets in a fight with his father and abruptly leaves the ranch to join the Army. Little is said years later when he returns with a new wife, Rita -- a woman who ignites romantic feelings inside Blake. This is just one more complication for the guy -- he's already struggling with questions about Jack's loyalty and whether he has the right to be the next heir in line to own the family ranch. When youngest brother Bob brings his new bride, Helen, back to live on the ranch, the entire family fractures and nearly disintegrates. But it's the land which continues to bind them together.

The author, a fourth-generation Montanan who now lives in San Francisco, has a feel for his characters and their land that's as intimate as a husband running his fingers across his wife's body. Rowland knows Montana like the husband knows his wife's hip.

It's quieter still at night, when you can sit for hours at a stretch and hear nothing except the crickets, or the occasional cluck of a chicken. At night, the darkness seems to add to the silence, making it heavier, somehow more imposing. It is a silence that can be too much for some, especially people who aren't fond of their own company. And it seems that living in such silence makes you think twice before speaking, or laughing, or crying. Because when sounds are that scarce, they carry more weight.

Silence settles over the Arbuckle family in these pages, too. When they do crack their lips to speak, you can hear the jawbones groan.

This novel is filled with smothered dreams and unrequited longing -- Blake has a successful tryout with a scout from the St. Louis Cardinals, but squelches that ambition to return to his duties on the ranch. In Open Spaces teems with the kind of family drama you'd normally find the Old Testament. It's a big, potentially messy plot, but Rowland never lets the reins slip from his hands.

Though the story whips along across the years, it's lyrical enough to slow down and savor the finer details of ranch life -- everything from family dinners to county dances. There's one particularly gritty scene involving a cow and a prolapsed uterus which is as gripping as anything I've read in a long time. Rowland had me right there in that barn, elbow-deep inside that mother cow, grimed with muck and blood. More than once, I had to tell myself to breathe.

In Open Spaces reminds us that the world was a capricious, dangerous place less than 100 years ago. Spinal meningitis, snowstorms, starvation, getting stomped by a horse -- these are all dangers which threaten the book's characters. As the Arbuckle patriarch is fond of saying, "Always expect the worst, and you'll never be disappointed." Blake adds:

Although he did expect the worst, expecting the worst had never prevented disappointment. In fact, my father not only experienced disappointment, day after day, but he had built his life around it. And I see now that it was a common quality among our people, to live with a wary knowledge that things could always get worse. To not enjoy accomplishment because of the certainty of more disappointment. It was an attitude born of experience, as a bumper crop of wheat, and a bountiful year, could change to failure in the time it took for a hailstone to bounce off your head.

Reminiscent of two other great Montana family sagas, Norman MacLean's A River Runs Through It and Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall, In Open Spaces is an engrossing literary journey -- once started, it's hard to lift your eyes from the page. | March 2003


David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.