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'Serendipity & The Bitter Roots' - Missoula Authors Macleod, Maclean and libraries

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‘Serendipity & The Bitter Roots'- Macleod, Maclean & libraries

A few years back I was paying frequent visits to Missoula’s libraries. I was going through volumes of the old Missoula County High newspaper – The Konah, and the local newspaper, The Missoulian. My main mission was trying to find information about my family. I have grandparents who attended school in Missoula. It was fun doing this as I was able to learn a lot, and I read and learned about many other Missoulians.

The people at these Libraries were helpful and courteous in all cases.

If you are interested in Montana and its history, both libraries are helpful. The County Library has the Montana Room which is devoted to Montana’s and Missoula’s history and the Mansfield Center Library has a massive collection of Montana historical items. Both libraries have plenty to satisfy your historical interests and both are worth the visit.

Rather than dwell on my family here, I wanted to talk about one visit in particular to the University of Montana Library. It illustrates a kind of serendipitous coincidence that I find fascinating.

It was while at the U of M library that I ran into a little book titled ‘The Bitter Roots’, by Norman Macleod. At the time I was looking at Norman Maclean’s books which sat at about eye level. While looking down from Maclean’s items, I happened to notice the name Norman Macleod. I was familiar with that prominent Missoula name and out of curiosity picked up his book, ‘The Bitter Roots.’ (He apparently was not related to the old McLeod family in Missoula.)

Strangely, it was also written by a former Missoulian, and it dealt with Missoula from 1917 through the 1920’s, at about the same time that the Macleans were there. The coincidence got even stranger when I read the ‘Bitter Roots’, because while the clearly autobiographical story is centered on Macleod, it also dwells on characters drawn to portray the Maclean brothers, “Wild” Bill Kelly and several other Missoula kids.

Macleod’s friend, U. of M. professor H. G. Merriam, stated in one of his literature reviews that some characters in this novel were “recognizable.” In a postscript Macleod acknowledges several other Missoula people, including the “warm-hearted, hard-boiled western newspaperman, Mr. French Ferguson,” and his contemporaries and schoolmates Dean Jones and Billy Dugal, “for stories told out of season.”

Macleod attended schools in Missoula with Paul Maclean and the two lived in the same Missoula neighborhood at one point.

In fact the book’s lead character is Pauly, or Paul Craig, who does not lead a very nice life. In an interview with researcher Douglas Wixson, Macleod later stated that he grew up under sad circumstances. His real father and mother divorced while he was a toddler and his father never became a part of his life. His step father, a wealthy Missoula surgeon, Dr. W. P. Mills, did not provide Macleod the emotional stability he felt he needed.

The story also has a healthy dose of a character called “Stiff Sullivan,” whose resemblance to Bill Kelly is unmistakable. “He got his grades in high school by being the best quarterback they ever had.” Both Kelly and Paul Maclean died tragically before Macleod wrote this “Missoula” novel.

The two figures written to portray the Maclean boys were pastor Storm’s sons, Augie and Norval.

The younger Augie was in the habit of staying away all night and avoided answering his mother’s inquiries.

“Augie had been away all night so often. . .[he] Never gave reasons for his behavior a mother could believe. He just looked at her impishly with those red cheeks and merry eyes. He asked was he not the father’s son and him the minister? The Pastor would smile and let it go at that. Pastor didn’t believe in ferreting out the secrets of his kids. The Lord would provide and besides he had to go fishing.”

“Norval, the older son, was a smarter edition than Augie. His nose was sharp, aristocratic as one could wish! Raspberry cheeks, dark eyes, a good head of hair, and a fine mind, too. Pastor couldn’t wish for a better couple of kids.”

The book’s point of view, largely taken from Macleod's unhappy Missoula youth, couldn’t have foretold a story that garnered much of an audience and it didn’t. Published in 1941, the book was almost unknown, even in the city it records. While some of its characters were dramatic in their own right, Macleod usually views them narrowly from Pauly’s adolescent point of view.

Probably the most dramatic scene involves a group of kids swimming in the Clark Fork River near what must have been Van Buren Street Bridge. Typical bullying by the older, tougher kids resulted in Augie Storm [youngest Maclean brother] tossing one of the kids in a current he could not negotiate and he was drowned. While Augie attempted to rescue him, the others display a nonchalance that is unbelievable. Augie’s remorse does cause him problems, but the truth of the alleged incident is never publicly revealed.

The incident was based on a real Missoula drowning near the University in 1917.

From a historical perspective the book is more interesting. The preface to each chapter presents small vignettes of events that had significance at the time. Here, Macleod sought to hammer home the political turmoil that prevailed in the area, and with it he drew a kind of counterpoint to his characters’ stories. Events of a national character were swirling hellishly, just as these Missoulians trundled about their business.

WW 1 plays a prominent role in the book and in these vignettes Macleod presented local scenes that he knew clashed with the democratic ideals this country was founded on. Local citizens were being placed under arrest for nothing more than unpatriotic utterances. Montana’s sad experience with sedition lawmaking is well documented. For this, and other writing that Macleod produced, including his poetry, he was tagged as a radical writer.

One example of these vignettes appears below:

“Following investigations which have been conducted for the past two days, C. Duke and Peter Janhanian, the latter a Finn, who are believed to have been implicated in spreading anti-draft and anti-registration literature in Missoula and Bonner, have been arrested and placed in county jail. . . . Over two hundred are dead at Butte in State’s worst mine disaster. The flames and poisonous gases cut off lives of the entrapped miners. Only sixty-one bodies have been recovered. . . . Pro-German plot is seen in Labor agitation in Butte. The I.W.W. swarm into grief-stricken city. Agitators circulate bulletin calling upon all mine workers to strike.”

Macleod, in fact, has several characters visit Butte and they meet the very real man named Bill Dunne, who will forever be remembered as Butte’s most radical newspaper editor. Their visit also purports to coincide with a bombing incident that occurred in that city. The trip was originally suggested by Stiff Sullivan with the intent of seeing one of Sullivan’s uncles who lived there and worked for Dunne. They witnessed Bill Dunne up close as he shielded himself at one of the local churches which had been barricaded. A center of controversy, Dunne “carried a revolver in his belt.”

Reviews of Macleod’s novel were not positive. It was his second novel and he would never write another one. His life to that point in 1941 had involved many personal problems as well, and he must have recognized that he was on a trajectory that would soon put him in the ground. To his credit he did seek help and managed to put his life together to the point where he eventually found a successful career teaching college at Pembroke State University in North Carolina.

He was better known as an editor and publisher of several small literary magazines, and is credited with founding the 92nd St. Y poetry center in NYC in 1939. He was the founder of Pembroke Magazine at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in 1969. He received the Horace Gregory Award in 1973 for his career in teaching and his creative achievements.

A link to 'The Bitter Roots' appears below:


Last Updated on Tuesday, 09 August 2016 19:22