By Gwen Florio
I fell in love barely out of first grade, a first-sight jolt that persists a half-century later, steadfast through too many moves, too many jobs, too many marriages.
I was about seven when, poking around in the cool dimness of the public library, I chose a book with an intriguing cover, one with coppery buttes jutting into an endless sky.
I didn’t know the word butte then, of course. And I don’t remember the title, nor the story line, other than that it was about a Navajo boy who herded sheep. Here’s what I do recall: that landscape, the way it seemed to go on and on past the pages, open and empty and exhilarating. So different from tiny, crowded Delaware, where the air itself wrapped you close, a cloak of humidity that filtered the sunlight, blurring outlines.
I turned to the book’s illustrations, the crisp delineation between mesa and the blue bowl of sky; the utter absence of any sign of humanity. Boom. Love. Just like that.
My childhood reading had always tended toward adventure tales. Now I sought out books set in the West, thrilled when my beloved Black Stallion series traveled to a ranch in The Black Stallion Revolts. The library’s large-print section yielded a copy of Shane. Unlike in the movie version, Bob Starrett never says “Come back,” but I did anyway, re-reading it again and again.
In adulthood, my reading became a solitary, guilty pleasure. When everyone buzzed about Bright Lights, Big City, I lost myself in Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. Coming Into The Country, by John McPhee, resulted in years of Alaska-themed passwords (long abandoned). A Philadelphia Inquirer colleague who shared my unrequited passion for Montana directed me to Ivan Doig and This House of Sky, and to James Crumley and The Last Good Kiss, with its indelible opening.
I delved into the great, heartbreaking books by and about Indian people—Fools Crow. Laughing Boy. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Once They Moved Like the Wind. PermaRed. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse—all necessary reminders that the landscape that so captured my imagination was soaked in blood.
Likewise, tales of ranching (Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog), tales of mining (Anthony Lukas’ Big Trouble), tales of mountain men (A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky) and, thank God, even tales of women—Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Mildred Walker’s Winter Wheat, Kathleen Norris’ Dakota.
Along the way I collected words, exotic, delicious; savored but never spoken aloud. Because when in conversation, in the paved and teeming East, would I ever say coulee? Mesquite? Arroyo. Piñon. Chinook. Umiaq. Cayuse. With whom would I practice my mangled pronunciation of Yá’át’ééh? Ninaiistako?
So when, 20 years ago, a Denver-based job at my newspaper opened up—one whose territory stretched from Montana down to the Mexican border—dear God, how I fought for that job. And finally settled into a long-term relationship with the West.
But which West was I in love with? Cormac McCarthy’s borderlands, all mesquite—that word!—and horses and hard, hard men, nary a woman in their pages? The quiet intensity of Kent Haruf’s eastern Colorado plains? James Welch’s wind-scoured Hi-Line reservations?
My unabashedly promiscuous answer: All of it. Every last bit of it.
Maybe I’d have become a writer without moving West. God knows, I’d tried for years. But something about waking up daily in the place I’d craved for so long made me want to get the feelings—and the stories that might go with them—down on paper. I roamed the length and breadth of my territory, trailing sheep in Idaho, picking my way along the edge of a massive, burning trash dump in Ciudad Juarez, following the heroin trail through New Mexico. I cranked out stories for the newspaper, but short stories, too, heavy on descriptions of the magnificently indifferent landscape and, after the requisite one million rejections, eventually learned to add some people and some action and some tension; all of it, characters and plot alike, bound to the land itself.
It finally worked. A book got published, and then another, and another still. I’ve settled down, I hope for good, in Montana. All my books are set in the West. Landscape is key to each, letting me use those alluring words that once had no place in my life. My fourth novel comes out in March. Its setting: the Navajo Nation, with a cover that reminds me of that childhood book that launched this journey those long decades ago:
Gwen Florio is a veteran journalist whose first novel, Montana, won a High Plains Book Award and Pinckley Prize for crime fiction, and was a finalist for an International Thriller Award, Shamus Award and Silver Falchion Award, all in the first novel category. Dakota was published in 2014 and her third novel, Disgraced, came out in March 2016.
To learn more about Gwen Florio’s most recent novel, click on the cover below.