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Kid off a hay ranch

Paying homage to William Kittredge



After a long and distinguished career writing short stories and non-fiction, William Kittredge has authored his first novel. The University of Montana creative writing professor emeritus and author of such seminal western non-fiction as Owning it All, a collection of essays on the region, and a memoir, Hole in the Sky, released The Willow Field on Sept. 26, and will read from it at this year’s Festival of the Book Gala Reading. To mark its release, the Independent invited James Crumley to write about his fellow author and old friend.

Bill Kittredge and I met sometime back in the hazy days of the late ’60’s. I was an instructor at the University and had just sold my first novel. Bill was a writing student at Oregon, the premier student of an old friend of mine from Texas, Bob Lacy, who had carried Bill over to Missoula for a manuscript conference. As I remember, Bill and I were consuming trays of gin and tonics on the balcony of the Florence Hotel, then disposing of the glasses in an inappropriate manner. Bill was just off an Eastern Oregon hay ranch, and I was only two years off my last drilling rig. We recognized each other, however it is that working-class kids cursed with intelligence do it.

Later that evening on the way to an after-hours party at my house, I dumped my motorcycle in Greenough Park. When I finally walked to my house, Bill had already broken into my house and dispersed my whiskey like fishes for loafers.

I knew then that Bill and I were going to be friends for life.

As we have been for almost 40 years.

When I quit my teaching job at the University, Bill took it and maintained it beautifully until he retired recently. A piece of good luck that may have saved both our lives.

It’s no secret that Mr. Kittredge and I, during our misspent youths, spread disorder and various sorrows across several Western states, but we always paid our bar tabs and tipped like gentleman. Or so the rumors and the stories say. But those stories have been told so often around bar stools and campfires that whatever truth might remain is as thin as a streetwalker’s soles.

And I’ve got a slightly different version for you, something far closer to the truth. Take a kid off a hay ranch, bless him with brains, infect him with an abiding love of stories and the language, and you’ve got Bill Kittredge.

Bill is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. His intellect is fearsome. Years ago when he put me up between checks, I went through his library. We all underline phrases in thoughtful books, right? But when Bill did it, the lines he chose illuminated the entire text. Bill could converse in all areas: philosophy, history, fiction, and art; he also knew how to handle horses and ranch machinery, and to talk about all of it clearly.

Aside from being one of the finest prose stylists in the country, Bill Kittredge is one of the best short story writers ever to address the West. His collections will last as long as people read. In his writing classes at the University his remarkable ability as a close reader made him a gift. He was able to tell the students what they were trying to say, and point them in the right direction.

Of late Bill has turned his talents to the worthy chore of saving the West from those who would make the whole land look like Butte.  His numerous essays and books make it clear that if we don’t fight back, we will lose the heart of the land we love.

Now Bill has published a novel, The Willow Field, a sweeping history of how we come to love the land. It’s a beauty. It will fit nicely on your bookshelf between Lonesome Dove and Legends of the Fall, and last as long as there is one man to defend this place we call home.

I’d ride the river with my old friend, William Kittredge, anytime.

Bill Kittredge and Ivan Doig will appear during the Festival of the Book’s Gala Reading Friday, Sept. 29, at 7 PM in the Wilma Theatre. The reading is free. The Willow Field, $25.95, was released Sept. 26 by Knopf.

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