North-central Idaho is rugged can­yon, mountain, and ranch country.  Its dominant culture is that of the British and American borderlands.  Its people are descendants of 19th-century pioneers and homesteaders (some of them Missouri Confederates who went west after the war).  They are fiercely individualistic, but they also take care of one another.  They know how to hunt, fish, fix things, and, should times get really bad, how to survive.  (Think of Hank Williams, Jr.’s famous song of 1981.)  These tough, resilient people are the subject of Brian Hart’s first novel, Then Came the Evening.

Hart is a native son with a working-class background (carpentry, welding, fishing), and he doesn’t much like what is happening to his beloved state.  Despite Montana’s reputation as “the last best place,” it is her neighbor to the west that is the last of the Rocky Mountain States to be “discovered.”  Not by Lewis and Clark, of course, but by the rootless rich and the metronaturals (affluent outdoorsy urban vagabonds).  As one of Hart’s characters puts it, “we’re being colonized.”  That concern runs throughout the novel.  Hart’s theme is the destruction of nature and community—all that is authentic and beautiful—by war, rootlessness, and money.

The setting of his tale is Lake Fork, Idaho, a small town just south of the gentrified summer-resort community of McCall, in the mountainous central part of the state.  It begins in 1972 with the return of Bandy Dorner from combat in Vietnam.  Not long afterward, a thoughtless crime sends him to the penitentiary.  The story shifts to 1990, the year of the run-up to the Gulf War, with Bandy’s second return home.  His parents are dead, but his estranged wife, Iona, has returned to care for their 18-year-old son, Tracy, who fell while fixing up the house with the help of an elderly but very able neighbor, Wilhelm Guntley.  Thus does the family uneasily and warily come together.

Bandy promptly finds that the local people are not the only things to have changed.

They . . . passed a sign for another new golf course.  There were townhouses and condos . . . and they struck Bandy as being somehow predatory.  He still didn’t understand where all these people came from.  It was like they were refugees, people set upon by some unknown force who had saved nothing from their past lives but their bank accounts, or maybe it was their bank accounts that had driven them from their homes into the mountains.  The wealthy were invading and it wasn’t out of necessity.


A neologism that helps explain what Bandy and Wilhelm are feeling is solastalgia, defined by its inventor, Glenn Albrecht, as “the pain experienced when there is a recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault.”  This time, those responsible for the violation are not clear-cutting loggers or open-pit miners.  They are real-estate developers, which may be worse.

Tracy thinks the newcomers will bring construction work, and he toys with the idea of selling them part of the family land someday.  Wilhelm warns him not to do it.  All Tracy will get for his land is cash, and when that’s gone he’ll have nothing.  A depression is coming.  “Don’t sell that land.  It’s worth more than money.”  Wilhelm scorns the theory that the influx of the rich provides employment and prosperity for the locals: “You don’t need millionaires, or a million people to find a job, and they don’t need five-thousand-square foot homes and golf courses.  That ain’t need.”

Wilhelm calls it “excess.”  It is also evidence of a disproportion, or imbalance, in the economic life of the country.  There’s something wrong when some can afford two, three, or four large homes, each located in a different climate or region, while many more have nothing, and the others are left catering to the luxury of the super-rich.  Iona is being paid to watch 12 sprawling vacation homes while their owners are away, either working elsewhere or residing at another of their numerous residences.  Summer is short in the Northern Rockies, and when it gets cold, the rich fly away, only to return briefly in the winter for skiing, then away again to sunnier climes until July.  Such transience dissolves community and turns land into a commodity.

Tracy soon witnesses giant earthmovers tearing up pastureland to make way for fairways and greens.  Clouds of dust swirl, covering a lovely but forlorn Finnish church.  He realizes that Wilhelm was right.  There is something “unholy” about what is happening.  “What’s sacred if everything’s for sale?”  What’s more, the situation is likely to worsen.  “There were more coming, and there always would be.  Until it all fell apart.”  Meanwhile, his father’s life is falling apart.

This reviewer wanted to cry out, What are golf courses doing in Idaho or Montana, anyway?  Hart mentions them so often he must see them as a symbol of all that is wrong with the monied invasion: excess, luxury, self-indulgence, selfish waste.  It’s not just that the snow and rain will keep them empty eight months out of the year; it’s that golf doesn’t belong there, any more than condos, vacation homes, or subdivisions do.  The new development is turning the Rockies into an exclusive proprietary playground, diminishing them to a scenic backdrop to cocktails before a wall of glass.

Hart, like most natives, is aware of the fragile and vulnerable beauty that surrounds his story, but he doesn’t spend many words describing it, except here:

The mountains above the lake were all granite, elephant-hide gray, and the evergreens spread thick and reaching away from the water’s edge like ink seeping into coarse paper up the drainages until they faded and disappeared at the tree line, strangled by rock and thin air.


Rich outsiders have been known to say that the beauty of the mountains is wasted on the locals.  The opposite is true.  It is the rich who are despoiling what was the last refuge from the overcrowding, the gross materialism, and the general ugliness of a civilization in which nothing is sacred, nothing is real, and everything is for sale.

The novel ends with a hunting trip in the high mountain forest during the first snow of the fall.  Tracy shoots his first elk.  Wilhelm is there, along with two other boys.  I see the meaning this way.  When it all falls apart, as it surely will, the golf courses will go back to pasture, the ski runs to forest, and the rich will go away.  But the natives (Scot and Scandinavian, Celt and Anglo-Saxon, Nez Percé) will stay and thrive, because, to paraphrase Robert Frost, they belong to the land.  Idaho may have been discovered, but thanks to Hart, it’s no longer unstoried.


[Then Came the Evening, by Brian Hart (New York: Bloomsbury) 272 pp., $25.00]