Stoddart, R. A. (2016). Dreaming of Idaho: Illuminating the Literature of Idaho through Zane Grey’s Thunder Mountain. From The Selected Works of Rick A. Stoddart; University of Idaho
Odds are that most Idaho writers did not grow up dreaming of becoming an “Idaho” author. Smart money would assume they simply desired to write, and be prosperous in writing, and geographic location played no part in their decision to put pen to paper. However, readers often like to associate authors with geographic regions. This is because the work either contains elements of that region within its content or the author has some connection to the area through birth or place of residence. Idaho readers are no different in that regard, embracing writers such as Vardis Fisher or Mary Hallock Foote. While “Idaho author” may seem like a simple concept to define, it is actually a nuanced literary construction. For example, Ernest Hemingway is often considered an Idaho author but he is also claimed by many other states and places around the world. This essay will examine what goes into making a writer an Idaho author. This undertaking will use Western genre novel writer Zane Grey’s 1932 novel Thunder Mountain which is set in Idaho to examine this literary exploration. Thunder Mountain is a fictionalized telling of the Idaho mining camp of the same name.
What is our collective fascination with the fictions and truths of the West and by extension Idaho? Robert Penn Warren tapped into something true when writing about a character briefly seeking solace in the physical and metaphorical West in All The King’s Men (1946).
“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. (p.286)”
But this Robert Penn Warren character is only a visitor to the West — an interloper or outsider — defining what the West is for us.
Zane Grey’s Thunder Mountain might certainly be viewed in the same way towards its description of Idaho. It is a fictionalized telling of the Idaho mining camp of the same name. The story centers on a rough and tumble cowboy from Missouri turned miner, who garnered his reputation in Montana. He takes under his wing a tenderfoot father and daughter from out East and helps interpret the wild west of Idaho for them. Ironically, this outsider interpretation for others of Idaho, its landscapes and experiences, is reminiscent of many writers who live in and write about Idaho. Grey was not from Idaho, nor did he live here. Thunder Mountain is his only significant work with a setting in Idaho. So then, is Grey’s interpretation of Idaho an accurate one? Is this Idaho literature?
Grey was known to write formulaic novels. Ronald (1975) describes the Zane Grey formula in this manner.
“An Easterner – that is, an innocent – arrives in the West. He, or she, has been a failure in the past and seems unprepared to meet the challenges ahead. The land at first seems harsh and unforgiving – the sun is too hot, the canyons too deep, the peaks too rugged, the rivers too swift. Problems are compounded by the appearance of evil, of men who live by their guns and who care nothing for the rights of others. Gradually, however, the neophyte becomes a man. Rather than be beaten by the environment, he learns to conquer the elements, and in doing so acquires a deep appreciation for the land. (p. 13)
Thunder Mountain definitely follows this familiar plot-line but Ronald also notes that “(m)ost important, the Zane Grey formula is an outgrowth of the author’s personal experiences, a reiteration of his own journey to the frontier” (Ronald, 1975 p.13). Grey did indeed experience Idaho as he journeyed to the remote area around Thunder Mountain on a multi-day horse packing trip. This trip served as the basis of inspiration for the rich descriptions he includes in Thunder Mountain such as this description along a canyon in the Salmon River:
“Somehow it had induced lingering hours of happy reverie, to which he had long been a stranger. The place was down around the bend from the valley, where a bench of sage nestled under a great wall. The melodious murmur of the stream came up; the warm sun beat down; the sweetness of sage almost intoxicating; the solitude was omnipresent; and across the canyon a tremendous broken slope as many-sided as that mountain could boast. Long glistening slants of talus, rugged narrow defiles winding up, grassy benches fringed with fir, huge sections of splintered cliff hanging precariously, and patches of black lodge-pole lines stepped endlessly to the blue sky (p.15).”
This trip has been documented in at least two articles (Kimball 1973; Waite 1996) and each approach this trip through the eyes of an Idahoan marveling at the otherness of Zane Grey with his fancy saddle and Japanese cook that accompanies him. Despite the otherness of Zane Grey’s camping provisions, it could be argued that Grey did indeed experience Idaho and this experience is found with the surprisingly descriptive prose of Thunder Mountain. Ronald (1975) notes that Grey had once stated “My inspiration to write has always come from nature. Character and action are subordinated to setting (p.14).” Ronald concurs but suggests alternatively that “Character and action are not subordinated to setting, but rather are developed by it. The three work together, with setting providing the impetus for change (p.14-15).” As setting plays such an important role in the development of Grey’s work, it could then be thought that the setting of Idaho is the primary protagonist in Thunder Mountain since, as Ronald suggests, it is the vehicle which not only drives the plot but also initiates change in the characters. From this angle, Thunder Mountain is indeed a book about Idaho and should be embraced heartily as part of its literature.