In Montana, man feels call of freedom, tug of heartstrings

It is fitting that William Kittredge prefaces his lyrical first novel, 'The Willow Field,' with a piece of poetry.

A stanza from James Wright's 'The Blessing' leads into this melodious story of passion and abiding love set in 20th-century Montana. The 74-year-old Kittredge, best known for award-winning nonfiction - including his memoir, 'Hole in the Sky' - has produced a fiction debut that reads like an epic ode to the West.

The story revolves around Rossie Benasco, a young man drawn from his upper-middle-class existence in Reno, Nev., to a life of horses and ranches in the Northwest.

As he struggles to find a place for himself in the dismal Depression days of the 1930s, he meets Eliza Stevenson, the only child of a wealthy rancher from the Bitterroot region of Montana. Eliza is headstrong, beautiful, intelligent and pregnant by another man. The attraction that springs up between the two 19-year-olds is instant. Try as he might to put her behind him, Rossie finds himself going out of his way to bind his life with that of Eliza and her unborn child.

But a life with Eliza means a life with her parents, Bernard and Lemma, creating a conflict between the working life Rossie envisioned and the relatively comfortable one the Stevenson family can offer him.

Rossie values his freedom and connection to the outdoors, yet he cannot rid himself of his fierce attraction to Eliza. Kittredge illuminates this skirmish in a manner that is engaging and enlightening.

Kittredge writes as if he had Cormac McCarthy standing over one shoulder and Wallace Stegner peering over the other. Like McCarthy, he has a pitch-perfect ear for the harshness of the West, the unsentimental relationship between man and nature. But his gentle delight in this same vista and his belief in the overwhelming power of a great love affair nods to Stegner.

Despite a book filled with elegiac description and masterful writing, bits of dialogue can be elusive and annoying. At one point Eliza tells Rossie, 'We fall to sleep breathing one another's odors and we're tranquil - like that.' There's poetic, and then there is nonsensical.

Ultimately, the spirit of the story rests in the language and viewpoints of its male characters. As one of Rossie's mentors muses about horses, he notes: 'Some of them got more spring than others, some are smarter. You're always hoping to find one who can do anything. But mostly you don't.'

With this first novel, Kittredge demonstrates he is an author who can do anything.

Also reading this week

The red hot Mississippi area is home to hip restaurants, boutiques and the Loggernaut Reading Series. Authors Paul Collins, Marian Pierce and Mary Szybist will present 'Masks,' a fiction and poetry review, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Mississippi Studios (3939 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-288-3895), $5. For information, go to or call Erin Ergenbright, 503-320-3123.

Dog lovers always point to Portland as a haven for canines and their people. So Jon Katz should feel right at home when he arrives with his latest book, 'A Good Dog.' It's the story of Orson, a troubled border collie the author labels his 'lifetime dog.' Katz will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Annie Bloom's Books (7834 S.W. Capitol Highway, 503-246-0053).

The last time Elizabeth George was in town, she spoke to a full house and fielded many questions (including the ubiquitous 'Where do you get your ideas?'). George's latest book, 'What Came Before He Shot Her,' is a stand-alone mystery featuring three orphaned siblings and the murder of a prominent detective's wife. George will read 7:30 p.m. Friday at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

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'The Willow Field'

by William Kittredge

Alfred A. Knopf

William Kittredge

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23

Where: Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651

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