A Personal Reading and Review
of Russell Rowland's Cold Country,
By Heidi Beierle
I grew up in the harsh environment of the Western High Plains. After my first months-long escape to the east coast for college, I found myself preoccupied with the landscapes and writing of the high desert. To this day when I read writing set in or evocative of the West, the sere landscape within me receives a much-needed drink. It was with a desire to slake my inner thirst that I read Russell Rowland’s novel Cold Country, and it delivered.
Cold Country is set during a Montana winter in 1968, shortly after Carl Logan and his family arrive in a small ranching community from Billings. As if settling into the small town weren’t difficult enough for Carl, who took the ranch management job one of the locals expected to be hired for, Carl’s son Roger loses his cool during a baseball game at school and hits his only other 4th-grade classmate, Scooter, with a bat. Worse yet, Tom Butcher, a mountain of a man who maintains a powerful position in the community, is found bludgeoned to death, and Carl is the leading suspect.
The novel opens during a midnight calving check. Roger accompanies his father into the frozen field and hopes to talk to him about why his mother left and if she would be coming back for Christmas. Neither subject comes up. Instead, Carl pulls a calf from its mother, and Roger watches as his father skins the dead baby. Readers of High Desert Journal will recognize the practice as I did: the pelt identifies the mother’s baby because of how it smells and will soon be attached to an orphan to make the mother think it's hers and nurse it. The scene is a shocking way to open a book but sets the tone for both the story’s violence and the reality of ranch life.
The local schoolchildren shun Roger. He is a sensitive and empathic soul who understands that the best way to alleviate the suffering of those closest to him is to go off on his own. He calls on animal behaviors to carry him through different moments. When he is focused on catching a fish in an icy creek with his hands, he becomes a bear. When he is frightened and seeking courage and confidence, he becomes a wolf. When he is tired and relaxed after a meal, he becomes a bobcat. It is unclear if his experience in these forms is a kind of make believe, a hallucination, or something magical at work. Roger’s father is the only person who sees Roger when he is in animal mind, and when Carl asks how Roger hurt his hand, his son replies, “I stabbed a guy.”
This scene with Roger is my favorite in the book. Do we believe Roger? Do we believe Carl who looks “into his son’s eyes searching for signs of delusion, or exhaustion” but finds Roger clear, calm and well slept? Do we believe the implausible is true, that he was a wolf, or do we believe the outlandish is true, that a ten-year old would stab a man? And if Roger could stab a man, could he be the one who killed Tom Butcher with a baseball bat?
Cold Country goes beyond the prejudices of being outsiders that the Logans experience and unpacks the community’s complications, secrets, and antagonisms that are deeply ingrained in everyday life. In order to resolve Tom Butcher’s murder, the community must look closely at itself and allow its culpabilities and vulnerabilities to surface. Not easily done. Fists fly. In a larger sense, the book asks: How well do we know who we are and the people closest to us?
Halfway through the book one evening, I expected to go to bed when I reached the end of the chapter. But I had to know what happened next and allowed myself one more. Still on the sofa hours later, I finished the book. I had been carried along by the story, immersed in the place, tense during characters’ missteps, and engaged in the question of who murdered Tom Butcher.
This story is complete with drinking, addictions, abuse, guns, knives, and fights. If you have difficulty with the calving scene in the prologue, you might be equally or more troubled by other parts of the book. On the up side, there’s a lot less spitting in Cold Country than in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. By the end of Cold Country, everyone is changed, some for the better, some for the worse.
I, too, was changed reading the story. I empathized with Roger and felt echoes to my own experience of not being able to distinguish what was real and what my mind made up. And I was prompted about the importance of finding softness for myself. It’s good to be reminded that the struggle to be internally gentle is worthwhile for me, the people close to me, and the broader communities I inhabit.