By Patrick Winderl
This week marked a milestone for Hi-Line native and literature professor Bill Thackeray, as his novel "River of Milk'n Honey" became his first fictional work to see print.
The book, which chronicles the interactions of two young men growing up on the Hi-Line following World War II, was released Thursday by Wild Coyote Publications.
Much of the novel takes place at former Burnham School, located just a few miles west of Havre, though the book also describes other landmarks easily recognizable to Hi-Line residents. Thackeray, who attended Burnham School during the 1940s, said he drew on many of his own experiences to craft the novel.
For instance, the best friend of the book's protagonist is largely based on one of Thackeray's real-life friends, and a number of the events described in the novel are based on experiences Thackeray had growing up on the plains of north-central Montana.
"River of Milk'n Honey" begins with eighth-grade graduation at Burnham School, and follows the two main characters as they struggle with teenage angst and come to grips with adult responsibilities, set against the backdrop of a bygone era on Montana's frontier.
Although the doors to Burnham School closed long ago, Thackeray's novel brings new life to the wooden building that still stands among the wheat fields near Fresno Reservoir. The white paint is faded and cracked and the bell that used to occupy the school's tower has long since been claimed by time, but the school is still home to a hundred vivid memories of a man who spent his childhood there.
On a recent summer afternoon, Thackeray returned to Burnham School - no longer atop a horse but within the comfort of an air-conditioned car - and thought about the changes six decades have brought. He pointed out a spot behind the building where students used to tie up the horses they rode to school. He examined the faded spot on a creaking wooden floor that held a wood-burning stove used to combat the winter cold. He explained how the corner of the room once had metal cots where he and a friend would sleep overnight if a blizzard prevented them from riding home.
Half a mile away is a reservoir where Thackeray and his horse were swept away in a flood when a dam buckled during a spring storm. "Across the river and through the badlands" is the ranch where he was raised.
A number of scenes in the book take place at a local tavern that still exists today and will be easily recognized by readers. These and other elements are incorporated into Thack-eray's novel, and provide a rich stage for "River of Milk'n Honey."
Much of the dialogue in the novel is laced with obscenities, though Thackeray defends it as an accurate representation of frontier life.
"The swearing was both colorful and musical," said Thackeray, who cites Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck among his literary influences.
"Good novels are abstract truth about human experience - just like poetry," he said.
Thackeray was born on a ranch near the Milk River northwest of Havre. After graduating from eighth grade at Burnham, he moved to Havre to attend high school, and worked part time at the Havre Livestock Commission, which is mentioned a number of times in "River of Milk'n Honey."
"I did practically every job they had," Thackeray said, adding that his duties included running the loading docks and cutting cattle.
"River of Milk'n Honey" is the third novel Thackeray has written since he first undertook fiction writing four years ago, though it is the first to be published. Thackeray, who has a doctorate from Idaho State University, is a tenured professor at Montana State University-Northern and has authored numerous nonfiction works.
Thackeray said he was inspired to write a novel with Burnham School as the setting after it was mentioned at a Montana Historical Association conference he attended that there is very little literature about rural schools and post-World War II Montana.
Thackeray said he has enjoyed the transition to fiction.
"I wish I started writing fiction earlier. It's a lot more fun. Let's put it that way," he said.
Fiction is liberating, Thackeray explained, as there is less fact-checking and research, no footnotes or bibliographies, just a sense of freedom to develop characters and control the direction of the writing.
There are hard parts, too, he said.
"You got to stick with it. That's the hardest thing. You have to know where you're going," he said, "setting the stage so readers know who the characters are and where it is going."
Accustomed to decades of nonfiction writing, Thackeray attended a number of professional workshops to familiarize himself with the nuances of writing fiction.
"The style of writing you use is very different," he said, adding that he struggled to infuse dialogue in the story and keep his writing efficient. Learning to intertwine two or more plot lines and bringing them to a satisfying conclusion is one of the hardest parts about fiction writing, Thackeray said.
His original manuscript has been rewritten many times, and a number of people have contributed to the final product, he said. Historian Martha Kohl was very supportive of the project from its inception, and Havre-Hill County Library director Bonnie Williamson also helped out.
"She went to a one-room schoolhouse, too, so she knew where I was coming from," Thackeray said.
Thackeray's own son, Will, was among those who helped him shape and improve the novel.
"He made many of the really good suggestions," Thackeray said, adding that Will was able to draw on his own experiences as a student at Davey School, another one-room schoolhouse that still serves Hi-Line children.
Thackeray has written a sequel to "River of Milk'n Honey," which is also scheduled to be printed. He said the novel, to be called "North to Sweet Grass," picks up where "River of Milk'n Honey" finishes and will be the second book in a three-part series.
"River of Milk'n Honey" is available at Creative Leisure, McLean's, the Emporium and the MSU-N bookstore. Thackeray will host a book signing Saturday at 2 p.m. at Creative Leisure.