Title: Montana Red
Author: Jane Elliot
Cover Image: Sasha Burkhard
Publisher: Manifold Press
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: M/M Historical Western / kink
Length: 60,000 words
Rating: 4 out of 5 rating stars
A Guest Review by Raine
Summary Review: Hard edged historical realism with a warm hearted centre and some determinedly creative kinkiness combine somewhat uneasily but give a memorable read.
Blurb: It’s out of the frying-pan and into the fire on the day Henry first meets Red. He’s happy enough at first to be having sex with a man – Heaven knows, it’s better than what he’s running away from! – but it isn’t too long before Red’s sexual extravagances are driving the two of them apart. It’s only when Henry’s trying to manage on his own again that he at last begins to achieve a little perspective – on inversion in general, on himself in particular, and even on his relationship with Red. That’s when he starts to wonder if maybe there isn’t a way back for them after all, but this time it will definitely have to be on his terms …
When I read this evocative and vivid historical western it proved to become a conduit for reminding me of films and music that seemed occasionally appropriate to the book’s action. The realism of the hard life frontier atmosphere brought to mind the emotionally bleak but visually outstanding 1971 John Altman film, ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’. This led me on to the film’s blissfully mournful and self reflective music by Leonard Cohen.
The novel is wonderfully successful at creating the relentless graft of farming and restrictive small town life in the Montana of the mid 1860’s. This is not a pretty fictional western. The everyday details of blood, sweat and tears were managed with skill and without me feeling like a turkey overwhelmed by historical stuffing. The food metaphor is provoked by the real sense of how close to the fine line of destitution people in this society could fall. The story begins with the unfortunate Henry Longfellow being left naked and helpless after he is robbed. His unlikely Good Samaritan is the hard working but sexually opportunistic farmer, Montana Red.
The book shares points of view mostly between these two main characters. These almost opposing personalities, assertive and passive, view the same events very differently, which leads to the main tension in their awkward relationship. Communication is very much in short supply here. It takes a third person, Mark Tanner, carpenter of interestingly curved ‘table legs’ and a lot of common sense to help them both out.
When Montana Red’s priapic excesses dominate his thoughts he is hard to sympathise with, he becomes the epitome of thoughtlessness, which is unfortunate because otherwise he shows far more encouraging personality traits. However I found Henry’s early passivity as hard to stomach as Red’s obsession with his penis. Fortunately for my reading enjoyment Henry eventually develops some true grit. They are both on the path of self knowledge but it does take some interesting developments before they sort themselves out.
Their characters are seen very much as part of, what seemed to me, an unusual group of homosexual men, who all live careful lives as part of the wider society. A practical society which when the occasion demands it turns a blind eye on men dancing with men – Mary’s who willingly wear a strip of cotton on their arms to denote their willingness to play the woman’s part in the dance. This led me to think of adding the foot-stomping music by Mumford & Sons to my soundtrack for this book. The characters in this story make the very most of the few seasonal country dances that come round. The way this select group of ‘inverted’ men take their opportunities to sneak away and shag each other senseless in various combinations was very entertaining. However these interactions were also used as a microcosm to explain the wider workings of their lives. Moreover, when Henry’s past catches up with him they are unexpectedly proactive in helping him and Red out. This part of the story moves away from detached realism and reminded me infinitely more of a John Wayne ensemble/ buddy movie.
I was exasperated by both Red and Henry at points in their story, but their efforts to change were very engaging. I also found the mix of everyday hard stoical self reliance with some outrageously hedonistic kinkiness a little incongruous. Even allowing for the philosophy of work and play hard the general atmosphere of the book became uneven at times. However the clever and occasionally very amusing writing certainly made for an original and memorable read.