Since I wrote this post I’ve published a third book of interest to Montanans: my biography, One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story.
By Kevin S. Giles
A wise uncle told me once that when I found a good place to live, don’t blab about it. There’s no faster way to ruin paradise, he counseled me, than putting it on the map.
Sorry about that, uncle. The secret’s out.
I’ve written about Deer Lodge, Montana, in my two latest books, which I imagine is just about the most anybody has written about a hometown anywhere in Montana. I doubt either book will start a stampede to Deer Lodge. Word’s getting around, though. It’s a town that’s climbing in the search engine rankings, and in today’s digital world, that’s something.
Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
My first book set in Deer Lodge is Jerry’s Riot, the nonfiction account of the 1959 Montana prison riot. Readers applaud its accuracy, both for the event specifically and for its documentation of prison life generally. I thank my sources for that. Jerry’s Riot tells the story of the epic clash between career criminal Jerry Myles and the prison’s new reform warden, Floyd Powell. Readers will learn as much about Deer Lodge in this book as they will about Montana State Prison. I didn’t make any of it up. Instead I based the book on hundreds of interview with guards, townspeople, administrators and even prisoners, including George Alton, one of three who led the riot.
I found some inspiration for Jerry’s Riot after reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood three times. Good storytelling lies with details. In Jerry’s Riot I describe Jerry Myles as “a bull on tiny feet,” and his co-conspirator Lee Smart as being “sassy, with a girl’s countenance, but with eyes of ice.” Or hostages telling how they tried to reflect light from matches off the badges on their officers’ caps to alert officers in the wall towers. Or the wife of a guard hostages relating how she tore down the alley in her stocking feet when she heard the roar of a bazooka as the National Guard began an assault on the prison. That’s what probing interviews will do for you.
My second book is the fictional story of Paul Morrison, a Deer Lodge boy entering his first teenage summer. In Summer of the Black Chevy, Paul encounters an older boy, a rebel, and together these boys struggle through a series of difficulties that change their lives forever. I wrote extensively from my memories of Deer Lodge, including the fire escape at old Central School, the old grade school gym, cars “cruising the drag,” and fishing the Clark Fork River.
Summer of the Black Chevy examines deeper themes of grief, war and the power of family. This novel stays close to what I knew about Deer Lodge when I was a boy. I imagine it still rings true.
So we have two books, one nonfiction and one fiction, set in one small hometown. Evidently Deer Lodge is a bigger town than I thought, because it provided nearly 800 pages of storytelling.
Yes, I did a sorrowful job of abiding by my uncle’s advice. I heard him loud and clear. It’s just that I feel close to Deer Lodge, for any number of reasons, and it’s better to write about what you know. I don’t imagine I’ll ever live there again but it doesn’t matter. Both books took me home again, to a place long ago in years but ever so recent in my mind, putting me at the front porch in ragged tennis shoes. Writing sails over years and miles to what we know best, and when we see ourselves in the story, we nod and smile.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books are set in his native western Montana. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)