By Tim Leeds
Imagine a post-war world, where families have to hide from enemies seeking to capture and imprison them, learn to live on the land, without electricity, without cars or tractors, without modern conveniences.
Imagine a family trying to do that in the Bear Paw Mountains south of Chinook.
That is the story told in the first work of fiction by a Hi-Line native whose love of children and the outdoors, combined with a disabling illness, led her to a new career as an author.
BilliJo Doll's first novel, "The Seekers," hit the bookstores last month. While the names of towns and locations in north-central Montana have been changed in the work, people from the area still may be able to recognize them.
Doll, who is in the process of moving from Chinook to Glasgow, made presentations to students at area schools this week. She said one of the reasons she wrote a novel aimed at junior high-age children is that it gives her more opportunities to work with schoolchildren.
She traveled to Bear Paw Elementary School south of Chinook on Monday to meet with students from that school and from the Warrick and Cleveland schools.
"If the grocery store is wiped out, what would you eat?" she asked the 11 children, ages four to 12.
"Bugs?" said Megan Raty, 10.
"I don't personally like to eat bugs," Doll said, and proceeded to take the children on a hike where they found plants instead, including dandelions, which Doll said help strengthen the body's immune system, western yarrow, which helps people recover from colds, and western sage, which serves as an anti-inflammatory, a deodorant for foot odor and can be burned to keep mosquitoes away.
Paige Raty, 8, and Kevin and Casey Young, ages 7 and 5, respectively, asked Doll what the crocuses blooming on a hillside near the school are good for.
She answered that crocus blooms for such a short time in the spring that she wasn't sure what it could be used for.
"But they sure are pretty," she added.
Doll, who has a degree in rangeland watershed management from Montana State University in Bozeman, said she has been giving presentations to children, like her Monday field trip, a couple of times a year. She wants to work with schools, churches, clubs and organizations to give presentations about edible and medicinal plants, cooperation, confidence and writing.
"You don't (write novels) for money, but I have fun," she said. "Maybe that's why I write for kids, because I never grew up."
Doll has submitted another manuscript, unrelated to the first, to a publisher, and is halfway through the sequel to "The Seekers." She has plans for a total of four books in that series, one for each season of the year, but said she is waiting to see how successful the first is before she writes all of them.
"There's no use writing it if there's no market," she said.
She has seen some success already. The book wasn't officially released until March, but she received a small royalty check for early orders made through February, Doll said. She also sold some copies at a writers conference she attended this month in California.
She took the material for the book from her own experiences in rangeland management, farming and ranching, and from childhood games in which she pretended to hide from and fight enemy armies.
Doll said part of the reason she wrote for the junior high level is that there seems to be a shortage of interesting action books for that age. She watched her son go from reading R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series straight to books by Stephen King, which she decided were not appropriate for an eighth-grader.
"There wasn't a lot of moral, exciting adventure boys' stuff for that age group," she said.
She also wanted a book with a positive message.
While there is sadness and hardship - even death - in "The Seekers," its message is definitely positive.
The characters learn that the only way to survive is through hard work and cooperation.
"When you work together, you can beat any odds," Doll said.
While the book is not overtly religious, she wanted it to have a positive moral theme.
"There's lots of faith in the book," she said, "how to treat people and get along together."
She also included a boy-girl relationship, to interest girls.
The book is written for young people, but Doll told 12-year-old Tyrell Raty and 9-year-old Merle Young at the Monday field trip that it seems to appeal to more people than just their generation.
"I had a 74-year-old lady read it and say she couldn't quit reading it," Doll told them.
Doll was born in Havre. Her family moved to Malta when she was very young to operate a cattle ranch. She graduated from Malta High School in 1978, after spending a year studying in Germany as a foreign exchange student.
After graduating, Doll studied for a couple of years at Bible colleges, then started raising a family. She said raising her sons - Andrew and Matthew Swallows, now fully grown - is one of her proudest achievements.
While raising her family, she began working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"It was playing with grass, water and dirt," she said.
But she didn't have a degree in the field, so she enrolled at MSU.
"I learned to professionally play with grass, water and dirt," she said.
She also raised cattle on her ranch near Chinook.
Her work caught up with her, eventually. Doll said she was diagnosed with stress-related "autoimmune compromise" in 1997. Her weakened immune system causes problems including headaches, fatigue, insomnia and a susceptibility to illnesses.
"It means I eat a lot of dandelions. They're one of the best immune-builders there is," she said.
Her illness eventually kept Doll from doing her work for NRCS effectively.
"So they retired me in 2000, and I went nuts," she said. "Not being able to do stuff was really tough."
But she can write, something her insomnia doesn't interfere with.
Doll has been writing since her childhood, when she wrote plays and eventually became drama director for her church.
She wrote nonfiction work related to her field for years, she said.
When she saw an advertisement for a children's writing correspondence course, she applied without expecting to be accepted. She thought she might get the opportunity to improve her editing and proofreading ability if she made connections through the course.
"I didn't think I was good enough, and they accepted me," she said. "It helped me improve my writing incredibly."
After she wrote "The Seekers" - she finished it about a year ago - it took her six weeks to get up the nerve to submit it. She narrowed a list of potential publishers from several hundred down to three, and sent it off expecting it to be rejected. The first submission of a manuscript is almost always rejected, she said.
It was accepted.
Even if "The Seekers" series doesn't sell well, she plans to keep writing.
"It's an obsession and a disease," she said. "It's fun."
On the Net: BilliJo Doll: www.publishedauthors.net/billijodoll