In his memoir The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, Joe Wilkins captures the raw reality of growing up in eastern Montana where the land is dry and the work hard, but the stories are alive and resonating. Joe Wilkins’s clear prose illuminates the land, which burdens its settlers, as well as completes them.
Joe Wilkins describes two childhood friends in great detail. Both of these friends do not fit in the Big Dry, just like Joe himself who prefers listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, reading voraciously, and discussing philosophy rather than listening to Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, drinking beer, and mundane small talk. In “All Apologies,” Wilkins describes his friendship with Justin, a longhaired, pot-smoking “hippy” from Seattle. The two of them work as janitor’s assistants over the summer, forging a friendship over music, talking about girls, backbreaking labor, and dreams of a brighter, more interesting future far from Montana. Joe tells Justin stories of what they could be. He realizes his stories have the power to provide motivation and hope once Justin begins wanting to improve his life. But Justin comes from a broken home and he is forced to Montana after a fight with his uncle. Wilkins loses contact with him, yet still sees the spirit of Justin in strangers, whether it is the skinny boy around the corner, or in the woman smoking cigarettes ravenously, one after another.
In “The Big Dry,” Wilkins focuses on his relationship with Carlo Bernard, a poor boy with a disabled father looked down upon by the town. Joe Wilkins made an effort to treat him like a friend, unlike others. Carlo loved to tell wild stories about his family even though other kids teased him mercilessly. Carlo and Joe create a bond based on being outcasts in their community. Joe never questions Carlo’s stories and Carlo never judges Joe for looking at the stars or using words like beautiful. They admit their shame and their feelings of weakness. Even though they lose their closeness as they grow older, Joe still cares about him and wants him to be happy. There are several lamps in Carlo’s living room and none of them turn on. Wilkins ends this powerful section by writing, “This journey has been a dark one. Yet I pray someday each lamp may finally click on, and the world stream with seventy-watt glory, stream and fill with a kind of gentle fire” (197).
Joe Wilkins believes memory alone is never enough. A story can gather up the pieces that memory leaves behind. Stories help us understand and grow; they connect us to others in ways that we cannot achieve otherwise. Through storytelling, Wilkins tries to understand his father who died of cancer when he was just a young boy. We join him in a lifelong search for fathers: his storytelling grandfather, his little-league coach, his father’s old fisherman friend, a welder who fixes his broken basketball hoop, or his elementary school teacher who always had a new book for him to devour. Each of these men shapes him in some way. Near the end of his book Wilkins writes, “Many hands have held me. And I am here, and who I am because of them. How then do we reach out to those who have saved us, those who have delivered us from ourselves and unto ourselves? My mother prays. I try to tell out story” (197). Storytelling is Wilkins’s way of giving back to those who have influenced him because no one is solely responsible for self-creation. Stories guide us in contemplation, introspection, and self-discovery, but they can also lead us astray through lies or false hope. Writing his stories saved him, and they also have the power to save us through their truth and cathartic impact. As Wilkins writes, “It is when we recognize how stories fail us and how stories save us. It is when we have heard them both and tell, in the moment of our greatest need, the story that will save us” (169).
212 pages. Publisher’s Group West, Counterpoint Press, $24.00