The best books that will make you fall in love with Montana

Who am I?

I’ve always loved books about American history, including America’s westward expansion and the impacts on indigenous populations. I love Montana and I feel blessed to live there, but I am also very conscious that others lived there first, for many thousands of years. My first novel, Bone Necklace, explores these themes. When I am not writing, I am an American lawyer, an English solicitor, and an international arbitrator.

I wrote...

Bone Necklace

By Julia Sullivan,

Book cover of Bone Necklace

What is my book about?

Inspired by true events, Bone Necklace captures the intensity, violence, and unexpected conclusion of America’s final “Indian War.” In the summer of 1877, a small band of Nez Perce warriors held off four converging armies while their families escaped to Canada. Other books have been written about the 500+ Nez Perce who were captured or killed in the conflict; Bone Necklace is unique in its focus on the nearly 300 who escaped.

Bone Necklace is a tale of survival in which the Nez Perce overcome staggering odds and win the grudging respect of a war-weary nation. While deeply rooted in American history, their story continues to resonate, illuminating modern debates around institutional racism, journalistic bias, and the call for courage in times of moral crisis.

The books I picked & why

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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

By Stephen E. Ambrose,

Book cover of Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

Why this book?

Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage is the only non-fiction book on my list, but it is as readable as a novel, and it is foundational for anyone interested in the history of the American West. In 2014, HBO announced plans to produce a six-part mini-series with Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, and Edward Norton as executive producers. I was really looking forward to that; however, filming was halted in 2016.  

Undaunted Courage is a biography of President Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis. In 1803, Jefferson asks Lewis to lead an expedition up the Missouri River to the Rockies, through the mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, and back. This turns out to be an 8,000-mile journey through completely unmapped territory – a grand and dangerous quest. 

An important goal of the expedition is to find a navigable waterway across America, from sea to shining sea. The impossibility of this task becomes clear when the expedition reaches the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana. At a book-signing event some years ago, the author imagined the words that must have escaped Lewis’s mouth when he saw those impassable, ten-thousand foot, sheer vertical peaks. Ever since then, when I look at the Bitterroots, I sometimes catch myself thinking, “Oh Sh**!” 

Ambrose places the expedition, and Lewis’s life as a whole, within the broader context of America’s westward expansion and the government’s early “Indian policies.” The kindness with which the travelers are received by the Nez Perce and other tribes evokes a haunting sense of trust and hope. This aspect of Ambrose’s book was particularly interesting to me as I was researching my own book

According to Nez Perce tradition, Lewis’s co-captain, William Clark, left a Nez Perce woman pregnant. The boy grew up, and at 72 years old, was captured by the US Army after refusing to relocate to a crowded reservation. Imagine how that old man felt, having done no wrong, to be imprisoned by his own father’s people. 

Undaunted Courage is a work of outstanding scholarship and thrilling adventure. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in America’s westward expansion and the history of Montana.

Lonesome Dove

By Larry McMurtry,

Book cover of Lonesome Dove

Why this book?

This book is the first of a four-part series written by Larry McMurtry. Lonesome Dove inspired a fabulous television mini-series starring Robert Duval, Tommy Lee Jones, and Danny Glover. 

Lonesome Dove is about two former Texas Rangers who leave their sunbaked speck of a town on the Texas-Mexico border to make a 1,500-mile cattle drive to Montana. The story is as big as the western landscape McMurtry describes, with storms and stampedes and rivers full of water moccasins, but it’s the characters that draw me in. I hold a particular place in my heart for old Pea Eye, who “never displayed the slightest ability to learn from his experience, though his experience was considerable. Time and again he would walk up on the wrong side of a horse that was known to kick, and then look surprised when he got kicked.”

If you like cattle drives, sweeping landscapes, and unforgettable characters, this book is for you. 

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

By Norman MacLean,

Book cover of A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

Why this book?

Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical A River Runs Through It is an American classic set in Missoula, Montana, about forty miles from my home. The book inspired a film by the same name, directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt.

The author, a retired English professor, was 70 years old when he wrote A River Runs Through It. He began with what is probably the best first paragraph I have ever read: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."

Maclean first sent A River Runs Through It to prestigious New York publishing houses, only to get rejection after rejection. One editor reportedly complained that "It has trees in it," and, as such, would not engage metropolitan readers. But the University of Chicago – where Maclean got his graduate degree and later taught in the English department – came to the rescue and brought this masterpiece to market. It was the first work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press. As an author, I’m always encouraged by such stories.

Dancing at the Rascal Fair

By Ivan Doig,

Book cover of Dancing at the Rascal Fair

Why this book?

This is the central volume in Ivan Doig’s Montana Trilogy. I enjoyed this entire series, but Dancing at the Rascal Fair was my favorite. It hasn’t been made into a film (yet!), but it did inspire a song by one of my favorite guitarists, John Floridis.

The book tells the story of two Scottish immigrants who, in 1889, decide to make a fresh start in the beautiful but imposing Rocky Mountains. With no prior experience as stockmen, they soon learn the cold, hard facts: “There are so goddamn many ways to be a fool a man can’t expect to avoid them all.” Montana is a place, our narrator says, where a man’s tools are not so much hammer, pick, and shovel, but “hope, muscle and time.”

Against this backdrop, Doig draws a portrait of friendship and love. There are sheep-shearing contests and raucous dances in a one-room schoolhouse. There are brutal winters and unrelenting battles of will. There is love of breathtaking intensity, and love born of heartbreak and stoic devotion. It is a gripping, evocatively crafted saga.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ivan Doig at a small bookstore in Hamilton, Montana, many years ago. I had just started writing my book, and I remember telling him that I was stuck. Doig, a prolific author, encouraged me not to give up. He then published seven more books before I finally finished mine.

The Horse Whisperer: A Novel

By Nicholas Evans,

Book cover of The Horse Whisperer: A Novel

Why this book?

The Horse Whisperer tells the story of a woman, her teenage daughter, and a horse named Pilgrim who leave New York City to spend some time at a ranch in Montana after a severe riding accident. The book inspired a movie by the same name, starring Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson.

The ranch is owned by a man whose great patience, in combination with the serenity of the wide-open spaces, helps mend this broken family. It is an emotional journey that explores our ancient bonds with earth and sky. If you love horses and are looking for an easy read, this one is for you.

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