Swift Dam by Sid Gustafson

Publication Info: Published May 1, 2016 by Open Books. Kindle reviewer’s edition courtesy of the publisher. Other editions available.

Summary: The worst flood in Montana’s history occurred in 1964, when the Swift Dam broke after being inundated with rain and snow. Thirty-one lives were lost, all but one on the Blackfeet Reservation. (1)

Using this fact as background, plus his own knowledge and experience of that area, the author gives us a story that ties the past and present together through two men. One of the men is an elderly veterinarian. He uses his hands and deep knowledge to train animals, particularly horses, and heals those who are sick or injured. He eschews the modern ways of diagnosis through tests and technology. He listens deeply to the land and native peoples and wanders the hills above the dam like he is an integral part of his environment. The other man is the sheriff. Despite being half Native American, his mother sent him to live among the whites as a child. His background makes him uniquely qualified to be sheriff, although he would happily give up the job and go live on a ranch with his wife and unborn child.

The veterinarian has a decades long habit of disappearing for days. Yet on this particular occasion, his youngest son wants the sheriff to go find him. The son is sure his father is sick or dead. His father was frequently seen leaving the house with a mysterious black bag. The son desperately wants to know why the old veterinarian is doing this and what it means. The sheriff doesn’t panic, but takes his time to mull over what he knows about his old friend. The conclusions and truths that he reaches will profoundly change his life.

Comments: In Swift Dam, the author builds a rhythmic, thematic story of the importance of the natural world and of family ties. The tale pulled me deeply into the flow of water and time. I felt my heartbeat slowing, my tension easing. Having spent my life in suburbs and cities, I am not usually at ease in nature. There is too much danger that I am not equipped to handle, as my body’s allergies and imbalances in the great outdoors threaten to topple me into instability. But reading this novel made me feel like I was part of that land, even if for just a little while. For that, I am thankful.

Recommended for readers of Literary Fiction and Historical Fiction

My rating: 4.5 STARS

(1). Great Falls Tribune: 1964 flood: Worst flood in Montana’s history left death, destruction

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