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Cowboy’s Quill: Russell Rowland

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Writer by choice

By Doug Hare EBS Staff

When he was 28 years old, Bozeman-born Russell Rowland decided to become a writer while working a desk job in the U.S. Navy. He gave himself one year to publish something. More than a decade later, in 2002, he finally published his first novel, “In Open Spaces.”

Literary critics from New York and San Francisco took notice of Rowland’s impressive debut. The quintessential ranch story, set on the unforgiving prairies and stingy soil of eastern Montana, the book examines a family’s struggle through the Depression, two World Wars, and personal tragedy with an understated elegance and astute psychological understanding.

Even with the success of his first novel, Rowland had trouble finding a publisher for the sequel, “The Watershed Years” (2007), an equally impressive book about the Arbuckle family post-World War II.

His third novel might be his best work of fiction to date. “High and Inside” (2013) follows a former Boston Red Sox pitcher who decides to move out to Montana to “get away from it all,” leaving his demons in the rear view. So the protagonist relocates to a plot of land a few miles outside of Bozeman with his three-legged dog, intent on building his own house despite any relevant experience, his demons not far behind.

Most recently, the Billings-based author published “56 Counties: A Montana Journey” (2016), a nonfiction account of visiting every county in Montana over the course of two years. It is not a travelogue by any means. More than any contemporary author, Rowland diagnoses Montana’s bipolarity, its residents’ dangerous optimism, and the ubiquitous alcoholism in a land settled by damaged souls. Rowland points out that we are consistently voted one of the “happiest” places to live, while also having one of the highest suicide rates.

With colorful characters from small, forgotten towns in the Badlands in the east to the tourist-driven ski towns, fascinating historical asides, and insights into the various industries that drive the economies across our sprawling state, Rowland has a knack for uncovering in a few short pages what makes our state so diverse and variegated, only to reveal what brings us all together under the big sky.

Of all the books I’ve picked up this year, “56 Counties” is one that explains why Montana is Montana. Hopefully, Rowland will have no trouble finding a publisher for his next book.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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