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The Girls From the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage – The 1976 Club goes to Montana

October 13, 2021 21 comments

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage. (1976) Not available in French.

Take five girls anywhere, at any time. Three will be all right, and one will make it. One won’t. There they go.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is Elizabeth Savage’s semi-autobiographical novel. It is set in Missoula, Montana, The Garden City where the Five Great Valleys meet: the Mission, the Missoula, the Blackfoot, the Hellgate, and the Bitterroot.

Five girls, Hilary, Amelia, Doll, Kathy and Janet. We’re in 1934, the summer between the girls’ junior and senior year in high school. Doll struggles with school, she knows she won’t go to university; the others will and Hilary, their leader, knows that this year is a turning point in their lives.

The novel is set during the Great Depression but among families who are doing fine. Hilary’s father has a coal & ice business that is struggling but he’s been investing in land to secure their future. Amelia comes from old money. Doll’s father has kept his job, money is tight but they make do. Janet’s father is a doctor, he replaced the old GP after he retired. Kathy’s father is a professor at Missoula university, a stable job that doesn’t pay well, as Savage cheekily points out: Kathy’s father drank but only right after payday, since that is the only time professors can afford it. Of course, the mothers have no job.

Hilary has a purpose. She wants to succeed and be someone. Her next step is to get into a Greek sorority and she trains her little group for that. She understands how things work and she intends to play by the rules, even if she doesn’t totally agree with them. She has great social skills and understanding of social status. They certainly weren’t city girls, but the fact of the Rocky Mountains didn’t make them country girls, either. They need a clean reputation and it means sticking together and avoiding getting too involved with boys.

Three characters are more developed than the others, Hilary and his ambition, Doll and her acceptance that she’ll marry young and will probably live like her family and Amelia who struggles to find her true self between Anne, her arrogant and selfish mother and her disabled little sister. Her father died (committed suicide?) in a car accident and she feels responsible for her mother and sister.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is a vivid picture of Missoula’s middle class in the 1930s. Hilary is the main character but we see her parents’ point view and Anne’s too.

Hilary’s parents, Myra and Hank, have a solid and loving relationship, a traditional one. Myra, the mother takes care of the house and defers to her husband for all decisions. Hank wants to provide for his family and free his wife of any financial concern. The couple has a daughter and a son, they are better off than their parents and impersonated the American middle-class dream.

Elizabeth Savage was born in 1918 and spent her youth in Missoula, where her father was a teacher at the university. She went to Missoula County High School before going to Colby College in Maine. I assume that Kathy is the character who looks the most like her.

Savage draws a portrait of western life and western mentality as opposed to the East and to California. We’re in the 1930s and it’s not good to be openly communist in Missoula. It costs Mr Barry, a teacher, his position at the high school, and it’s not only his ideas that are different:

And Mr. Barry did other things that were not wise. He wore a hat. To this day in the Garden City Where the Five Great Valleys Meet, men wear hats. But proper hats. Proper hats are Stetsons. They don’t make Stetsons anymore, but Monkey Ward makes a sort of Stetson and so does J.C. Penney. That kind of hat indicates that though you may not be a rancher, you live near where the ranchers live and have in mind the welfare of the West. Mr. Barry’s hat had a narrow brim. He said it was a Borsolino and he said it was the finest hat ever made.

It’s not good to stand out, in Missoula. Hilary understands it perfectly. And although Hank approves of Roosevelt’s politics, he will never acknowledge it publicly.

If the truth were known, in some ways Hank agreed with Mr. Barry. Everyone knew the big companies had too much muscle. He even agreed about the new President. Hank hadn’t voted for him, but next time he probably would. That didn’t mean he was going to go all around town saying so.

I enjoyed The Girls from the Five Great Valleys for its sense of time and place. I always love picking up details about everyday life. I was surprised that Capek’s play R.U.R was played in drama class in Missoula high school. I didn’t know that Milky Way candies already existed. (You took a sandwich and a Milky Way.) And I still wonder what eggshells do in coffee. (Then in a crisp housedress and in the kitchen, she started to make the coffee with eggshells in it, the way her husband liked it.)

I also relished in Savage’s sense of humor and observation skills. They come out in statements like Weak people often are unhappy; strong people can’t take the time. Or If your mother is plump it is comforting to know your father is not attracted to storks. Or You can put up with a real mean man; one who is trying to be mean is meaner, maybe because the one who’s naturally mean doesn’t have to try so hard.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is a way for Elizabeth Savage to write about Westerners’ ways and let her reader know about her youth in Montana. You learn facts of life from the area like that Any young person in Montana knows that chasing stock is not allowed. It makes them lose weight and it makes them drop their young. or that People on ranches don’t like knocks on the front door because anyone who belongs comes in the back.

As always when I read books set in the 1930s in the USA, I’m surprised by their way of life compared to Europe at the same time and how much we have been Americanized since then.

And the tradition of having a cabin up the mountain to roughen it up was already there and alive. Amelia’s family has one, by a lake, where people go swimming and (trout?) fishing.

No cabin was named, nor did any sign proclaim its owner. This was the result of the same agreement that forbade running water. You had an outhouse and a shallow well with a hand pump. You washed outside if you felt you must wash. Half the fun was pretending to be your own ancestor.

Right!

This is my participation to Karen’s and Simon’s 1976 Club.

Thank you for organizing this event, it’s always a fun way to explore one’s TBR.

I’m looking forward to reading other reviews about 1976 books and hope you’ll pick another year for the Spring.

Check out my billet about The Last Night at the Ritz, another excellent book by Elizabeth Savage.

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