Colorado writer David Mogen grew up in small towns along Montana’s Hi-Line, an area below the Canadian border and east of the Rockies, as his father moved the family from one rural town to the next. The book begins with a return to the Hi-Line many years later, after Mogen has become a tenured English professor and his father is sick with cancer. On a road trip through Montana to Idaho, his father relates stories that tell of his harsh life in the region: earning money as a cowboy so he could move to town to finish high school. After his father’s death, Mogen wanders the Hi-Line looking for places to fly-fish, acknowledging he’s also fishing for stories. He seeks to discover the roots of his family and culture: “My father was a teacher and school administrator, but he had grown up as a cowboy. My mother was a nurse and housewife, but she had grown up as a homesteader” (58).
One of six children, Mogen depicts childhood and coming of age in the 50s in a variety of tiny, rural farming towns until he became a student at Columbia University in New York City. He relates how out of place he must have seemed to the other students: “’You should go downtown with Mogen,’ I overheard one of my new acquaintances say a few days later. ‘He stares at skyscrapers’” (46).
Mogen’s tales have an enchanting rhythm and his specialty in frontier studies shines through as he illuminates a geographic region that has been covered by Larry Watson and Judy Blunt but which is much less written about than the western side of the state. Honyocker Dreams is a unique combination of coming-of-age, death-of- parent, and ancestral search that defies any one of these labels but contributes to all of them. What sets Honyocker Dreams apart is the vivid attention to being an outsider: a descendant of Honyockers, Eastern Europeans who settled the Great Plains, the new kid, a Montantan in New York and later as a Coloradan visiting “the last, best place.” His structure, though at times confusing, mimics the way we come to know our own place in the world: with detours and surprises.
Honyocker Dreams: Montana Memories by David Mogen
University of Nebraska Press, 2011
227 pages hardcover/$21.95
Reviewed by Andrea Clark Mason