Candy Moulton: Reading the West 7-18-11
Last year I had the opportunity to meet with a Metis up in Montana. He showed me portions of the Old North Trail (an important trail used when the Metis people fled south out of Canada following conflict there including the Riel Rebellion). He also shared with me stories of his family and took me to one of the old Metis cemeteries.
The Metis are a cultural group of people whose ethnicity is mixed North Amreican European and First Nations (often French-Canadian and Cree). In his newest novel, “The First Dance,” Montana novelist Richard S. Wheeler turns to the history of the Metis and their early settlements in Montana.
He has crafted another book in his ongoing series, Skye’s West/A Barnaby Skye Novel, as he takes Dirk Skye, mixed-blood son of Barnaby Skye (who was the subject of dozens of Wheeler novels). Dirk’s father made his way into the mountain man west where he ultimately married two women, one Crow and the other Shoshone, who was Dirk’s mother. Now the series has moved to the younger generation and finds Dirk at his wedding to the Metis girl, Therese.
But this is no marriage that leads to a predictable “Happily ever after” and even before the wedding celebration has ended the bride disappears. It seems she has become a runaway bride because although the priest said the vows, she has decided that Dirk is not the man for her. The reason is simple. He works as a civilian scout for the U.S. Army and she realizes the army’s mission is to remove the Metis people from Montana and force them back into Canada – which at the time was not a country wanting to welcome them back.
Dirk, brokenhearted, heads out with the army and begins the work of moving the Metis, but he does not like it because he does not agree with what is being done. Soon, cut loose from the army, he sets off on a journey that will ultimately converge with one his wife is also taking.
I will admit the beginning scenes in this book left me a bit bewildered as Dirk and Therese seemed to be motivated by rather unusual rationales … however, when the heart of this story started developing, I was hooked totally. The images of the Metis, the almost unspeakable conditions they were forced to endure, and their resiliency is masterful writing by a man who has won six Spur Awards from Western Writers of America – more than any other living writer.
By the time Dirk and Therese’s lives re-intersect, I was so engrossed in the book I could not put it down. I’ve been captured by a novel like this once before – and it also was written by Richard S. Wheeler. That title was his Spur Award winning book “Sierra,” a story of the California Gold Rush. In it he precisely placed readers on the California Trail and now with “The First Dance,” he has given us the heritage, culture, and experiences of the Metis who settled Lewiston, Mont.
When I was in Montana last summer, I was given a copy of a CD produced by the award-winning composer Philip Ahlberg. Titled “Fox Family Fiddles” it is all Metis fiddle music. As I read “The First Dance,” I could almost hear those Metis strings singing to me.
I strongly recommend reading “The First Dance” … and getting yourself a copy of “Fox Family Fiddles,” too.