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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Annick Smith

At a glance
by Annick Smith

Milkweed Editions
224 pages, $13.95

Writing memoir is an art as difficult as any other.

The problem comes in how well you're able to reconcile memory with truth, prose with poetry.

Ask Norman Maclean. He didn't begin writing his three-story collection titled "A River Runs Through It" until he was past 70 "blowing upon the embers of my first life," he wrote, "which I left smoldering behind me one half a century ago here in the woods of western Montana."

Yet the book is as poetic an evocation of a young man's life as you're apt to find.

And out of Maclean, and that state of mind called Montana, flows Annick Smith. A friend of Maclean and Bill Kittredge and a prominent member of the world of Montana letters, Smith has attempted to construct literature out of her own life.

"Homestead," Smith's book bearing a deceptively simple title, is the May read of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

"The weathered log buildings on a hillside with yellow grass would own me," she wrote as the book's opening line. "From my first sight of the place, I was hooked. I started to invent a new life."

The obvious next question comes just four sentences later:

"If I lived here, who would I be?"

"Homestead" is her answer. In short, she is the person her friends never thought she would be: "a sturdy woman chopping kindling on the hard-packed dirt outside the kitchen door."

In the three decades that spans the wman first seeing the 163 acres on a remote spot near the Big Blackfoot River and the woman chopping that wood, Smith lived a life that demanded she deal with change.

Born in Paris, raised in Chicago, Smith was the last person her friends thought could make a go of ranch life. Sure, her husband, Dave, had been raised in small-town Minnesota. But her?

"I went to concerts and art shows and walked in Chinatown," Smith wrote. "I shopped for teas, rice wine, and spices whose names I could not pronounce. Home was streets full of strangers, green leafy vegetables thrown away into the rain-filled gutters."

The very notion of home, though, meant something special to this daughter of immigrants. Her parents had moved from Hungary to Chicago in the 1920s, just before Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany.

Which made them the lucky ones. Her extended family disappeared in the ensuing world war.

"Mobility was the lesson," Smith wrote. "Do not tie yourself to one place."

Married at 19, she and her college-professor husband moved to Seattle. After six years, he was offered a teaching job in Missoula, at the University of Montana.

The family would move into their house on Christmas Day, 1973. And a year and a half later, Smith wrote, "while the six-year-old twins watched, I witnessed my husband die of heart failure on the maple floor of our kitchen."

That's when her idea of home evolved. From that moment, Smith became a Montanan.

It's all in "Homestead": her childhood in Chicago, the move West, the harsh winters, hot summers, backpacking through parts of the land that she would come to love and for which she would become an advocate.

"Smith writes tenderly about these experiences, then rapturously about hiking, skiing, fishing the Big Blackfoot River, dancing, enjoying the company of literary friends Bill Kittredge and Norman Maclean, and working on the film version of 'A River Runs through It,' " wrote a reviewer for the literary journal Booklist. "A low-key yet forceful writer, Smith gives us much to ponder and admire."

In addition to "Homestead," Smith has written "Big Bluestem: Journey Into the Tall Grass" and "In This We Are Native: On Going Away and Coming Home." In addition, she co-edited with Kittredge the anthology of Montana writing "The Last Best Place" and served as producer on the 1979 film "Heartland."

But it's "Homestead" and the life that Smith has lived a life that is as different from what she once expected as rawhide is from rice wine that concerns us here.

"From our log house on the meadow, I study the coyotes through binoculars," she wrote. "Their ears are tipped red. No two days are the same, no season returns, and I am never bored with the stories that I find in this land. I live in my city."

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