Long before white settlement and Lewis and Clark tramped through the area now known as Missoula, the Séliš and Qĺispé buffalo hunters gathered in the place where the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork Rivers meet to plan and reconnoiter, and to tell stories of their dangerous hunts.
From those waters came the name of the place: According to the Qĺispé elder Patrick Pierre, Missoula is derived from “nmesuletkw,” a Séliš word for “extremely cool water.” The storied meaning of the word runs like a confluence into the literature of place. Norman Maclean, in his story “A River Runs Through It,”emphasizes that the “Big Blackfoot River,” which enters the Clark Fork, “was manufactured by glaciers.”
On a short summer night, listen and you might hear a war whoop skitter out of the darkness along the riverbanks, followed by the scattering yips of coyotes on Mount Sentinel.
“A river has so many things to say,” Maclean says in his semi-autobiographical story.
What I know is that Missoula calls to storytellers and writers. The cold clear waters of the Blackfoot, Clark Fork and Bitterroot Rivers have recorded the voices of the area’s inhabitants since time immemorial and continue to influence and inspire generations of writers.
Stories inextricably link with art and culture here: There is a growing music scene in Missoula; there are artists and galleries, distilleries and breweries, restaurants and food trucks and great coffee shops as well as the Missoula Public Library, with its osprey’s-eye views of the mountains and valley. Radius Gallery is curated by two people who adore literature and often pair their shows with writers. The Missoula Art Museum is particularly focused on the ways Indigenous stories intersect with art. Storytellers, writers and artists are drawn to Missoula by the enduring stories the rivers continue to tell.
What books should I read before I pack my bags?
I recommend one: the incomparable anthology “The Last Best Place,” edited by William Kittredge and Annick Smith, and researched by other visionaries, including the Blackfeet writer James Welch. The making of the anthology is a story in itself. The collaborators sought contemporary and significant literary works that defined Montana. They also scoured the vast state seeking Indigenous stories that expressed the panoramic history of the region before the arrival of Europeans. Each of the eight sections is introduced by a resplendent narrative, creating a gigantic literary anthology so successful its title has become the mantra of Montana. After 35 years it remains relevant — a timeless contribution to the literature and the history of Montana.
What books should I bring along with me?
Don’t bring any books with you: Visit Montana bookstores and talk with people who love books and the literature of the state. My favorite bookstores in Missoula are Fact & Fiction and Shakespeare & Co., but travel across the state and you’ll find many bookstores that celebrate and support writers, including Chapter One Bookstore in Hamilton, Elk River Books in Livingston, Montana Book Company in Helena, Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Cassiopeia Books in Great Falls, and so many more. You’ll also find bookstore owners who are writers themselves.
What books should I pick up from local bookstores?
The first time I read “Fools Crow,” by James Welch, I had the undeniable sensation I was witnessing the Pikuni people as they faced the devastating costs of encroachment and displacement. Published in 1986, the novel feels especially timely now. I also recommend Welch’s other novels, particularly “The Death of Jim Loney” and “Winter in the Blood” — two books slim enough to slip into your jean jacket pocket, next to your heart.
For a while it seemed everyone had read “A River Runs Through It” but, if you haven’t, it’s a breeze. Find a grassy spot along the Clark Fork River and enjoy the read.
The novel “One Sweet Quarrel,” by Deirdre McNamer, vividly recounts the boom-and-bust times surrounding the 1923 Dempsey-Gibbons World Heavyweight Championship fight in small-town Shelby, Mont.
James Crumley’s novel “The Last Good Kiss” is a fast paced and humorous read, with an opening line that is both gritty and magnificent: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
Crumley’s work and life are legendary in Missoula. His wheezy laughter still haunts Charlie B’s, a dive bar where locals gather to tell stories and hoist a few drinks.
What books are Montana’s hidden gems?
Montana is best revealed by traveling the back roads and hidden paths, and Montana novels and poetry collections published by small presses reveal similar treasures. “The Stone Sister,” by Caroline Patterson, a writer from Missoula, tells the story of one 1950s family dealing with a devastating secret. Patterson’s elegant prose illuminates a dark past.
The poetry collection “Horsefly Dress,” by Heather Cahoon, is as quintessentially Montanan as a gorgeous sunrise but too often overlooked by travelers. Don’t be one of them. Cahoon’s poetry is as startling as a skitter of lightning across the big Montana sky.
What’s new in Missoula?
Chris Dombrowski’s “The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water” explores what it takes to live a meaningful life in a rapidly changing environment. His work offers a fresh take on Montana, not just as a playground for sport but as a nurturing home.
Bryce Andrews’s “Holding Fire: A Reckoning With the American West” shatters the long-held belief that guns and violence are the only way in the West. Bryce shifts the narrative away from tired mythologies and focuses instead on what it means to be a steward of the land.
Both writers ask the reader to re-examine his or her own relationship to the earth and its people. I’m grateful to them for offering new hope and a good path forward.
The release of David James Duncan’s long-awaited novel “Sun House” was recently celebrated by a packed audience at the Wilma Theater in downtown Missoula. The meditative novel takes as many turns as Missoula’s Rattlesnake Creek, all the while celebrating the extraordinary power of community.
What literary haunts are worth exploring?
Stop by the Crumley and Kittredge corner in the Depot restaurant and sit at the same bar where the writer David Quammen once served up drinks to rowdy fiction writers — or so I’ve been told. Or hike to the concrete “M” that crowns the University of Montana and beckoned the writer Stephanie Land, author of the memoir “Maid,” to create a new home in Missoula and find almost-forever inspiration.
Debra Magpie Earling’s Missoula Reading List
“A River Runs Through It and Other Stories,” Norman Maclean
“The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology,” edited by William Kittredge and Annick Smith
“Fools Crow,” “The Death of Jim Loney” and “Winter in the Blood,” James Welch
“One Sweet Quarrel,” Deirdre McNamer
“The Last Good Kiss,” James Crumley
“The Stone Sister,” Caroline Patterson
“Horsefly Dress,” Heather Cahoon
“The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water,” Chris Dombrowski
“Holding Fire: A Reckoning With the American West,” Bryce Andrews
“Sun House,” David James Duncan
“Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” Stephanie Land
Debra Magpie Earling, a novelist and short story writer, is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation. She is Bitterroot Salish. Her first novel “Perma Red” was widely lauded, winning honors that include the American Book Award. “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea,” published in 2023, is her most recent work.