By Tim Leeds
Nedra Sterry of Eugene, Ore., former longtime Hi-Line resident, is finding success as a late-blooming writer, now working on her second book.
Sterry, 85, published her first book last month.
"When the Meadowlark Sings: The Story of a Montana Family," recalls Sterry traveling with her mother, brother and four sisters as her mother moved across Montana from school to school to teach; tells of her high school years in Hingham and her time raising her own family, mostly as a farm wife near Hingham.
Sterry said in an interview this week that she has mostly happy memories.
"I just always had a good time," she said of her childhood.
Her favorite memories of raising her own family are of her children.
"(I remember) the fun my kids gave me. I always thought they were funny and clever," she said.
After her husband of 60 years died in 1997 and she moved to Eugene, where two of her children live, Sterry began writing her book.
She wrote the stories and took them to weekly meetings of a writers club she belongs to.
"And it gave me something to think about besides my grief," she said. "Every week I thought of a memory and wrote about it. When you start writing like this you find they're like dominoes. You write one and it touches another. You find you remember another, more than you thought you did."
The book, released just before Thanksgiving by Riverbend Publishing of Helena, has sold better than expected in its first month, and demand seems to be growing, said publisher Chris Cauble. The greatest demand has been from the Havre area to Western Montana, but demand in the eastern part of the state has started to pick up.
He added that Riverbend Publishing has already had reorders and multiple reorders for the book from some bookstores.
"There seems to be some word of mouth raising interest," he said.
Sterry said she is now writing about her husband's aunt, who homesteaded with many trials and tribulations in North Dakota in 1904. Her writing doesn't leave her much spare time, she added.
"When you start writing a book like this, it just sort of grabs you by the throat and it doesn't let go. You don't do much else until it's done," she said.
Cauble said he is interested in publishing it when it is complete.
"I certainly am interested in whatever Nedra has to write," he added.
She has become part of another Riverbend Publishing project, he said.
The company planned to make some audio books, recorded on cassette tape, of several Montana books in the next year or so. Her book wasn't originally part of the project until Cauble heard Sterry read from her book at a book signing in Helena last week.
"I discovered she has a wonderful reading voice and a compelling voice when she reads her work," he said. "It made me decide on the spot that one of our audio books should be 'When the Meadowlark Sings.'"
Her mother, Delia Hanson, taught in Montana schools from 1914 to the time of her death some 30 years later. She moved to Montana in 1912 to homestead near Fort Benton with her husband, and turned to teaching when hail destroyed their crops in 1914.
Sterry saw little of her father, Will Hanson, from the summer of 1916 through the summer of 1927. He traveled with threshing crews, visiting his wife and children occasionally, while Delia Hanson moved her growing family from community to community to teach.
After he visited the family in Big Sandy in 1927, Sterry never saw her father again until she was grown and had a family of her own.
Sterry wrote that she didn't mind him being away.
"I remember the arguments and papa's loud voice, and I was always glad when he went away again," she wrote.
The times were hard on Delia Hanson, which constitutes Sterry's least favorite memories.
"She never complained. That was the most troubling thing," Sterry said in the interview. "She never had what other women had, but she was a cheerful, happy person."
Hanson's health often failed her. The schools she taught in often had gone through teachers quickly, some more than one a year. Hanson persevered through some of the most difficult students, often winning the friendship and respect of their parents in the process.
The hard times affected the children, including Sterry's youngest sister, Harriet.
A neighbor was caring for Harriet, an infant, while Hanson was ill but still teaching. The neighbor moved without leaving a forwarding address, taking the baby with her.
Sterry didn't see Harriet again until 30 years later when Sterry traveled to Great Falls to meet her sister, who was competing there in a bowling tournament.
Sterry also left the family for a time, living with a family in Saco that wanted to adopt her.
Sterry finally persuaded the mother of that family to return her to Big Sandy.
She writes about her feelings when the train pulled into Saco: "My mind was already at the station in Big Sandy where my family would be waiting for me, and I was happy at last."
Hanson took jobs over the summers, but still left nearly every community owing money for purchases she made to care for her family.
"But she was a cheerful and happy person. She could always look forward and see how things were going to be better," Sterry added.
The book tells of traveling to schools near Lone Tree, Gildford, Shawmut, Lewistown, and other communities in Montana.
Sterry writes of spending later years going to schools on the Hi-Line, and her experiences at Hingham High School, including meeting her future husband, Alton Sterry.
At first the Sterrys followed in Hanson's footsteps as Alton Sterry worked as a teacher, moving from school to school on the Hi-Line.
After a short stint living in Washington, D.C., during World War II, when Alton Sterry worked for the federal government, the couple and their son Ricky returned to Hingham to work on the Sterry farm. Delia Hanson died while they were in Washington.
They worked on the Sterry family homestead until 1974, when they turned the farm over to their son Alan.
The times Sterry describes could be from any homestead on the Hi-Line. She writes about their first years there, as a young couple living in a house that had no electricity or running water with her husband's parents.
She writes about clashing with her father-in-law, Ole Sterry, up to the time he was killed in a car accident and how she regretted never making her peace with him. The Sterrys helped Alton's mother, Maggie Sterry, recuperate from the injuries she suffered in the accident, and she stayed with them during summers in years to come.
Sterry's book relates stories like: the Rural Electric Association bringing power to the farm in 1947; one son persuading other local children to hijack a wagon and begin a trek to California - until the local postmaster notified the school principal; two of her sons starting a fire that burned down the family's bunkhouse; Sterry raising turkeys to pay for bicycles for the children and the problems that caused.
Sterry closes the book with a poignant chapter describing her husband's last few months of life.
She said in the interview that she wrote from memory, and she may not remember everything exactly as it happened. She intentionally changed a few things, too, she added.
"It's creative writing," she said.
She said she is happy about the response to her book, and that she saw many people she hadn't seen for years when she went on a book-signing tour in Montana this month.
One of her favorite responses to the book was from her 9-year-old granddaughter, who wanted to know if Sterry's childhood story about being bitten by a circus monkey was true, Sterry said.
"She was more impressed by the fact that I had been bitten by a monkey than that I had written a book," Sterry said.