Havre Daily News
His middle name isn't Makepeace, and the first two installments of his trilogy - "River of Milk'n Honey" and "North to Sweetgrass" - aren't "Vanity Fair." But Havre's William Thackeray has sewn together a distinctively early 1950s north-central Montana patchwork quilt of characters and events that readers are sure to find - as Thackeray hopes - "entertaining, enjoyable and worthwhile."
"I really enjoy doing them, and I hope that people will get a picture of the country 50 years ago," Thackeray said. "I'm trying to represent the country in these books. I hope that people will be able to identify with them and enjoy them."
The first book began with Thackeray's 14-year-old protagonist, Lew Wetzel, graduating from eighth grade at a country school at Fresno. His post-graduation education includes a freezing horseback spill through broken river ice, the C-section birthing of a lamb, an explicit sexual encounter and a knock-down, drag-out bar fight with his father.
The second, "North to Sweetgrass," begins a few days later with a maturing Lew preparing to head a cattle roundup east from the Sweetgrass Hills along the River of Milk'n Honey. It is a tightly composed tale that fits numerous genre - Western, Indian lore and mysticism, mystery, romance, suspense and period literature. It tackles cultural and racial conflict, and good versus evil. It is a teen novel for adults.
Prospective readers should note that the book contains graphic violence and obscenities.
The two principle motifs from the first novel continue into the second - Lew's dispute with his father over Lew's desire to go on to high school in Bullhook Bottoms and Lew's handling of his hormonal urges. These are joined by the mystical arrival of Coyote and Thunderbird, and Lew's interaction and conflicts with various characters reminiscent of the times.
"These novels are based on factual experiences. They aren't absolute fact, but they reflect experience," Thackeray said. "And the characters are based on people I know or combinations of people."
The primary characters and locations are vivid:
Lew Wetzel, called the Lone Ranger by taunters and fans alike, moves inexorably toward manhood with every page, both good and bad. He genuinely likes women, seems to enjoy their company, but can appear slightly chauvinistic in his hurry to save them.
Old Lew Wetzel, the protagonist's father, finds constant fault with his son and pushes him away from education and toward ranching.
Lew's great-grandfather, an Assiniboine or Cree, is a member of the sacred Grand Council.
Yellow Dab is Wetzel's faithful horse. Every cowboy hero needs his trusty mount.
Old Scott Kincaid came from Scotland to work the mines at Landusky but is chosen by Wetzel's great-grandfather to be a member of his band of Indians. He is the lead hand on Lew's father's ranch.
Lucien DuMont, a good-natured Metis sheep and cattle man, treats Lew as he would a beloved son.
Pauline DuMont, Lucien Dumont's mail-order bride, is unhappy with rural life and her marriage.
Anne Marie DuMont, Lucien and Pauline's 12- or 13-year-old daughter, is intelligent, hardworking and highly independent. She is one of the loves of Lew's life.
Ernie, DuMont's foster son, is a not-very-bright, soft, city kid transplanted into a rugged rural life he detests.
Old Arn Wall, a German immigrant, made a small fortune on the bootlegging trail and invested it in numerous legitimate businesses in Cottonwood and Bullhook Bottoms. He lives in a cliffside cave above the Milk'n Honey Breaks in the Sweetgrass Hills, where he also runs a saloon and has a string of prostitutes.
Damien, a college football player from Minnesota, and Rickie Springmeyer, a prominent farmer's son, are spoiled antagonists who repeatedly taunt and assail Lew and Anne Marie.
Judith and her friend Mary Magdalene are illegitimate daughters of Old Arn's prostitutes. He allows them room, board and clothing until they become old enough to enter the profession and can repay him. They were childhood friends of Lew.
Coyote, the Trickster, predicts tragedy for Anne Marie and membership in the Coyote Clan for young Lew.
The story includes the approaching end of the open range. Farmers' fences not only set off their fields - even young Lew had to admit cattle could destroy the bright green sprouts of winter wheat in the spring - but were strung around nonarable land, too. Young Lew catches his father's hatred of farmers. But he learns that farmers and ranchers needn't be enemies when Grandfather Springmeyer tells of his longtime friendship with Lew's ranching grandfather.
"I have no personal grudge against the farmers; they're my colleagues," Thackeray was quick to point out. "That's a characterization of my youth. I hope I characterized it the other way. The grandfather's best friend is the farmer there. On the other hand, my dad resented farmers, didn't like farmers much. So I had my hero say this, that farmers can't be trusted. But we wouldn't have a north Montana here if it wasn't for farmers. Farmers are really the basis of the economy here.
"I went to school out there and worked with a family up that way, roughly in that location out there," Thackeray said. "I spent some time up north with cattle and spent time with my dad up there. Fifty years ago that was free range where farmers just let the cattle run. But there's still some open range along the river there."
Fiction is nothing new to Thackeray. He's been teaching it for years at Montana State University-Northern. He's read thousands of novels and is considered one of the leading authorities on former Northern student James Welch and his classic, "Winter in the Blood." But now it's Thackeray's turn to produce good reading.
"I've actually written 2 books before these and it was just my notion that I wanted to write fiction," Thackeray said. "The two books before these I didn't think were worthy to publish. When I did 'Milk,' I thought the characters were better developed and worth publishing. The more I do it, the better they get."