About The Author

(c) 2011 Mona Leeson Vanek

I turned writer because of need. At first it was the need to provide for our kid's dreams in the cash-deficient northwestern Montana area we called home. Basketball shoes, musical instruments, and a little cash helped them enjoy all that their school could offer.

Later, after a five-year hiatus when I was secretary to the Noxon Schools Superintendent and Clerk of the School Board, when a job-related injury disabled me other needs returned me to writing: The need to dispel depression. The need to keep my sanity. And above all, the need to feel necessary.

But let me back up about forty-five years, and tell you how, although I had no awareness of doing so then, I began 'researching' these books.

Storm clouds crawled ominously over jagged mountains surrounding the narrow valley on November 1, 1945. Daddy led our caravan, driving a truck so burdened it groaned, grinding into ever-lower gears as the way steepened. Cuddling my yellow-striped kitten, I rode with Daddy, entranced by his unwavering optimism and enthusiasm about our destination in Montana. The moving van followed. Momma, with my brother Chester, 14, and sister Carol, 9, brought up the rear. Momma drove our 1941 Packard sedan, pulling a sixteen-foot trailer, springs squashed by the weight of hundreds of quarts of home-canned fruits and vegetables.

In three weeks I'd be 13, a teenager. We became changlings, then, my brother and sister and I. Transplanted from city streets to country soil; from Spokane, Washington 130 miles away, to the wilderness at the edge of Montana's Cabinet Mountains. No longer to be children of a prosperous Spokane businessman, we would now be taught ranching by parents bound in traditions of hard work, determination, and ingenuity. Character and ethics passed down by their immigrant parents were stressed, those truths having been re-enforced by the Great Depression.

Daddy, always the optimist and center of our lives, spun stories of a marvelous life ahead. We snaked along the rutted Bull River road, sixteen miles into a wilderness of evergreens dotted with small meadows. Ice rimmed the shimmering green river we crossed and re-crossed. Mountains spread across the horizon, each backed against darker peaks that towered in an endless intimidating array. Without Daddy's unbounded confidence to lessen my fears, the sheer immensity of the endless peaks and ridges reaching from horizon to horizon, with the clouded sky the only open view, would have terrified me.


I didn't know the first snowfall hadn't arrived on schedule in the valley. Chilling blasts generally swirled a white mantle from the surrounding peaks days earlier. Instead, it waited, like so many other surprises in store for me. Nor did I have any conception of the control those towering mountains bestowed. The furnishings from our 12-room mansion in Spokane had been hurried into the barren, six-room log ranch house before snow sifted down after midnight, a symphony in the ethereal silence. Wind swished it through the surrounding forest, wisping through chinks in the creaking, drafty house while I slept amid piles of furniture, dishes, bedding and clothing.

Cocooned with my little sister in a feather comforter on the splintery wooden floor, my dreams spun a web: tantalizing fantasies of fishing, hunting and exploring ecstasies ahead merged with dreams about the Halloween party at the Presbyterian Church I'd left behind. Witches and goblins chased my galloping horse through gold and russet autumn splendor. Apples bobbed on fish filled streams. The Bull River Ranch topped a flat-topped mountain - smack dab in the center of the Spokane world in my midnight visions.

Twenty miles away, other visions flitted through the dreams of girls my age who slumbered in Noxon: things like basketball games, box socials, boy friends, sledding parties, and of their Hallows Eve prank -- toppling an outdoor privy complete with their teacher inside; all things beyond my citified realm.

A city kid, I'd learned lots. From days spent with my brother in Daddy's blacksmith and welding business, to churches and Bible schools, libraries, movie theaters, to swimming and boating, lessons in piano, art, tap and acrobatic dancing, and roller and ice skating. Our parents always encouraged learning, and there was so much I didn't know of Montana and Montanans.

Noxon, my new 'hometown', was 20 long, lonely miles away from our Bull River Ranch: a schoolhouse, two stores, a church, a saloon, a hotel, and a railroad depot, surrounded by a smattering of houses. Most were as devoid of indoor plumbing as our ranch house.

On the morrow I'd be attending the 8th grade there, in a combined 6th, 7th, and 8th. The teacher and strict ruler of that classroom -- one of 3 on the ground floor of the 23 year-old two-story brick building -- was the victim of the Halloween privy-pranksters.
While I dreamed, the landscape changed as dramatically and abruptly as my life did that night. The two-story house knew many snows and plenty of history but not the luxuries of running water or electricity.

We awoke to six inches of the whitest snow I'd ever seen. Now I was eager to become a part of Montana and ranching, and as ignorant as a pesky pup with a baleful skunk at bay.

No matter that pack rats had gnawed a 'holey' creation from my little sister's only winter coat while we slept, and had eaten the tops from all Momma's house plants. Excitement filled the air.

My 'researching' had begun, although I had no inkling that my experiences were to provide invaluable insights into the lives of the homesteaders I'd write about years later.

Within days, this remote landscape replaced the familiar half dozen blocks we'd walked to our city school with the new experience of riding in a van-converted-into-school bus; a plank-seat along each side back of the cab.

For the next four years, fall to spring, it jolted us kids over the narrow rutted road to the little brick school, where a half-dozen teachers taught 110 students enrolled in grades 1-12.

Each fall tamaracks turned russet, and then dropped their needles as daylight hours waned. By winter's first snows we were en route before daylight, to be returned to the ranch gate at dusk. Sunrises and greening tamaracks heralded spring before daylight and again marked our walk to and from the bus stop, where snow still covered the bottom rung of the gate. The road that took us to the little hamlet that embodied Montana 'culture' (at the end of World War II) became axle-sucking mud during spring 'breakup.' Hub deep dust came with summer, and remained until the annual weeks-long rains coincided with the start of school. October's freezing temperatures hardened the ruts once again.

During the 4 or 5 months of winter, a county snowplow ventured our way once a week, scraping a sliver between high snow banks. Limber, snow-laden trees canopied the forest lane, sifting shivery white veils over the few brave travelers who disturbed their silent shrouds.

We missed very few school days, actually, considering the whims of nature's weather and the meager Sanders County road budget. But each one was devastating to me. I loved going to school.

During the long winter evenings I read: Rangeland Romance and True Detective magazines (left behind by the previous owner in boxes stacked by the attic chimney) and all of the books in the meager school library. Momma scolded when my 'nose was in a book' and the kerosene lamp's glass chimney smoked up, while my siblings were transported by the words I read. I learned to stop long enough to trim a wick, after she restricted me a couple of times.

There were learning adventures galore. Herding cattle on my own pinto pony was preferred to pitching hay, milking cows (followed by turning the crank on the cream separator) and scampering with the wobbly-legged calves. Cuddling rabbits, soon to be butchered, was preferable to gathering eggs and cleaning and de-lousing the hen house. Even stocking the root house cellar from Momma's lush garden brought pride that offset the stifling woodstove-heated kitchen, and the chore of bucketing hand-pumped water for canning, and bathing.
Survival under the 'microscope' of small town classmates yanked me into mimicking my peers; to apply lipstick, pencil eyebrows, crimp mascara-laden lashes, and paint fingernails I'd stopped biting before the end of my first week in Noxon. And master the art of setting pin curls in my shoulder-length auburn hair. Within a year, my hair became naturally curly, for which I credited two summertime constants -- hayfield-dust and early morning dew. High school introduced me to baseball and basketball games. And boyfriends. And dances.

Days before my 15th birthday, at a Halloween dance at Trout Creek someone put wax on the wood stove that heated the school gym, filling the big barn-like structure with smoke that sent everyone out into the freezing night. Art Vanek, a handsome young lumberjack just home from the army, hurried me out into the fresh crisp midnight air, and won my heart with his concern for my safety ~~ not to mention his kiss! My heart was never mine again.

Other adventures quickly lost their excitement compared to hours spent with Art. We hiked, fished, hunted, played baseball and basketball, and stayed to dance after each home game, not leaving until the musicians played, 'It's Three O'Clock In The Morning. We rarely missed a school dance, Jr. Prom or community dance, even though Art was forever overhauling his blue Plymouth sedan, due to those 'dates' which took us to hamlets up to thirty-miles away from Noxon. Sunrise added its rosy glow to goodnight kisses at my ranch-house door! Why, he took me to the county fair! And taught me the game of Pinochle, too.

I returned to Spokane for a summer, working as a live-in baby sitter for a family with one small boy. For $30 a month plus room and board, I also helped with housework. I attended movies again, went swimming, tried playing golf, and went to one country club dinner. Before Labor Day I returned 'home' to Montana, yet part of my heart remained in Spokane. My metamorphosis was incomplete.

Before my 17th birthday, having finished 11th grade along with my dozen classmates, I married the sturdy lumberjack who'd won my heart with his twinkling blue eyes and happy grin. Art had the manliest cleft in his chin, the broadest shoulders, and the truest, gentlest heart in the whole world. I was sure I knew it all. However, 3 years and 2 children later, I earned my remaining 1 1/2 credits to graduate high school, thus fulfilling the promise to my mother when she gave her consent so we could marry.

We bought five acres, nearer to Noxon where electricity was available, and built our own house from forest trees felled by my lumberjack man. We grew gardens in virgin soil, and became proud and contented with two sons and a daughter. Like our peers in this valley of economic hardships, we relied on hunting and fishing for our meat, wild berries for fruit, and buckskin tamarack for wood. Our poverty was Quality. Eventually we even had a well, running water, and indoor plumbing.

Construction of Noxon Rapids dam was just ending. A big push ensued to build a new school. Money was scarce to almost non-existent for the 'local people' -- residents of the valley prior to the construction era who remained when the 'good money' jobs ended. My lumberjack-turned-construction worker became part of the three-man crew who maintained the highway, a Montana State Highway Department year-around job -- with benefits.

Our kids needed basketball shoes, band uniforms, and musical instruments to take advantage of Noxon Public Schools offerings in the 1960s. The only 'job' available to me was writing a correspondent column for the weekly newspaper that served Sanders County. I started reporting news. Telephones became available. We indulged in the luxury.

I competed successfully for the job of Clerk of the School Board and secretary to the school superintendent. It paid $150 a month. Riches to us. I worked five years in the school system.

Then, before I was forty, a disabling accident at work changed my life, casting me back to changling again. Pain, drugs, and despair sucked me into deep depression. For the major part of eight years I was undergoing surgeries in a hospital 120 miles away, or sofa-bound while trying to mend my damaged spine.

And grappling with despondency.

A house gets very lonely when you're in it all day long by yourself. Again I turned to writing. For one entire winter, lying on the sofa, surrounded with dictionaries, paper, pencils, rulers, erasers, and my Scrabble game, I fancied becoming a creator of crossword puzzles - and becoming rich.

I didn't make a cent, but I enjoyed the challenge and in the process discovered that depression fled when challenge entered.

Desperate to keep my sense of self worth, my research tools became letters and occasional oral history interviews. Frustrated with life, I tried to understand the past. Of everyone I met I asked, "Why did you come here? Why have you stayed?"

With the help of my telephone, and with a board propped on my knees, I wrote bits for newspapers, sending them news of activities around town and vignettes about its residents. I learned to write by writing. Then rewriting and rewriting. I garnered postage stamp money, contentment, a wealth of friends, and a few angry people who didn't like what I wrote. When I wrote about controversial issues, some readers even said I should be tarred and feathered and run out of town. Editors assured me that was the natural result of reporting news. "Don't take it personal," they counseled me wisely.

Our children married and enriched our lives tenfold with seven grandsons and three granddaughters (who have added 16 great granchildren ~~ the treasures of a long life.)

Reading voraciously, studying Writer's Digest, joining Spokane Writers, whose critique meetings I credit rgreatly, and intense participation in a few Pacific Northwest Writer's conferences, all taught and encouraged me.

I'd be lying if I said I loved life in northwestern Montana, without reservations. Loneliness, and longing for art, libraries, culture, and diversity, nearly overwhelmed me at times. Many years passed before I valued as greatly the privilege of living in Montana's mountains, as my blue-eyed lumberjack always had.

But as libraries and courthouses sent me documents and microfilmed newspapers from the past I learned a multitude of detail about these Montanans, about their tenacious, struggling survival, their provincial culture in turn-of-the century conditions between the Cabinet and Bitterroot Mountains. Fellow members of Spokane Writers critiqued parts of my expanding manuscript, and sustained me with their encouraging words and friendship.

The answers to all my questing became a testament to those who came before me. The three-volume series of regional history I wrote, Behind These Mountains, I, II, and III were published by The Statesman-Examiner in 1986 and 1991.

Since publication of the series, membership in the National League of American Pen Women, Spokane Branch; the Idaho Writer's League, Sandpoint, ID Branch; Montana Oral Historians; Northwest Oral Historians and Montana Historical Society broadened my viewpoints and honed my efforts.

In 2005, (yielding to age) my lumberjack and I moved to Rockford, WA. Until then, I wouldn't have traded one waft of fall-scented air, one crisp sun-glittered snow-white winter scene, or the antics of one scampering squirrel, for all the cities on earth.

I believe with all my heart that these books exist only through God's will. I hope they touch and enrich your lives as profoundly as searching them out has mine.

Thank you for being my readers.

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