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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Pete Fromm

At a glance
Indian Creek Chronicles
by Pete Fromm

192 pages, $13

Pete Fromm is a Montana writer who isn't from Montana.

That was clear the first time someone talked to him about needing to cut "cords" of wood.

"Though I didn't want to ask," Fromm later wrote, "it seemed important. 'What's a cord?' "

His ignorance about such wood-cutting basics aside, Fromm's being an outsider who embraces, and often celebrates, his adopted home isn't all that rare. Many of those writers whose names have become associated with the Big Sky state - Richard Hugo, Rick Bass, Thomas McGuane - were born somewhere else.

As with the others, Montana became Fromm's home by choice. In his case, he had come West from Milwaukee to attend the University of Montana to study wildlife biology

He also found a career, as a writer, taking advantage of a couple of classes that he took through UM's creative writing program. Now the author of nine books, Fromm has won four Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association awards, the latest for his novel "As Cool As I Am."

One of the books that first brought attention Fromm's way was "Indian Creek Chronicles: A Winter in the Bitterroot Wilderness" (Picador, 192 pages, $13), his retelling of a winter spent in western Montana's Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, living alone in a tent 14-by-16-feet square, guarding salmon eggs for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

And, in celebration of the winter around us, that is the book we've chosen as the February read for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

Fromm was a callow college student when, in 1978, he took a year off from school and went to work for Idaho's Fish and Game. His job was to watch over some two million salmon eggs that had been carefully placed in the channel connecting Indian Creek with the Selway River.

As a native Midwesterner, Fromm had dreamed of living the life of a mountain man. But he discovered pretty quickly that being alone, even if he did enjoy the company of his dog, is not easy thing to endure - especially when the actual job that you've been hired to do, making sure that the channel doesn't freeze over, takes hardly any time and takes even less effort to do.

The rest of the time, Fromm merely existed - 60 miles from any human contact - and tried to fill his time any way he could:

"That first morning I inspected the channel, full of the great responsibility entrusted to me. But my boss had already set the headgate the way he wanted it for the rest of the winter and there wasn't a hint of ice anywhere. I looked at the crystal clear water. There was no trace of my fish, all hidden deep down in the rocks. There was nothing for me to do.

"That was my job. That's all. If there was ice it would take fifteen minutes a day, including the walk. The rest of the time was on my hands, but I had to be at that channel every day. For seven more months. Taking care of fish I couldn't see, somehow filling up the other twenty-three and a half hours of each day."

The basics of survival in the frigidity of a Montana winter took effort, and therefore occupied him for a while. Fromm also cooked, he hunted, he preserved meat, he read, he hiked and he met up with the occasional game warden and hunter.

But, in the end, he was alone. And the heart of "Indian Creek Chronicles," written a couple of years later, is how he learned to cope, if not thrive. And the book that came from his experiences received the kind of reaction that most writers would die to have.

"The author is sensitive enough to have enjoyed moonlight on snow and the eerie silence of the limitless cold, and, with tenderfoot luck, he witnessed an unexpected total eclipse of the sun, an event that sent him into a vital, whirling dance," wrote a reviewer for the literary journal Kirkus Reviews. "Nothing outrageous happened, nothing beyond the pale, but his modest adventures reckoned up to a tale well worth the telling."

"This is a good example of 'new nature writing' typified by the straight-ahead narratives of Rick Bass rather than the more literary styles of Barry Lopez or Annie Dillard," wrote a reviewer for Library Journal.

And Bass himself had this to say: "This is a lovely book about honesty, about clear-eyed seeing and clear-eyed feeling. Each reader will come away from reading this book with a favorite scene that he or she will remember forever."

These days, Fromm sets his books in a variety of places. His 2000 novel "How All This Started" was even set in Texas.

But he continues to live in Great Falls, his novel "As Cool As I Am" was set there and, in the end, you get the feeling that Montana is in his heart for good.

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