Veterinarian and author Sid Gustafson seems to conjure his father, fabled Pondera County veterinarian Rib Gustafson, in his new novel, Swift Dam. On the surface, it’s a story of the tragic flood that swept away an earthen dam in 1964, carrying with it 19 people – all Blackfeet Indians.
It’s also the story of two men, a young Indian sheriff, Bird Oberly, and an aging veterinarian, Alphonse “Fingers” Vallerone – one born nine months after the flood, and the other still trying to fathom the tragedy.
Oberly and Vallerone go back a long time. As a teenager, the young man once drove the vet to his far-flung ministrations, and they’ve kept company and council at many a nighttime event. “If it wasn’t a roadkill they helped along, it was Oberly holding down some grand-theft auto roadblack as Fingers cruised in from the Big Open, clotted cesarean blood braiding the hair on the back of his forearms.” When the two met at night, they’d talk about horses, dogs, wives, Pondera County politics, “rumors and truths.”
Fingers, in his 70s, has taken to “moondriving,” and sometimes disappears from his home in Conrad for a days at a time. His wife and sons worry. But Oberly seems to understand the old man’s nocturnal meanders, and what takes him back, repeatedly, to Swift Dam and the Birch Creek drainage below.
It’s been a long winter, and snow lies as deep in the mountains as it did 50 years ago, with rain threatening again to overwhelm the reservoir. Fingers rode the ravaged river on horseback a half century before, looking for survivors. “His horse trip revealed all he ever wanted to know about Manifest Destiny: a broken dam and dead Indians.”
Gustafson strings the story together as carefully as one might stitch the layers of a cow’s belly after a caesarian – his language taut and earthy. “Sid writes with a dedicated sense of place and change. Swift Dam is native lore from the poetic heart of Montana, a water manifesto,” wrote the late poet and novelist Jim Harrison.
Gustafson, who has a veterinary practice in Big Sky, is also the author of Prisoners of Flight and Horses They Rode.
– Kristi Niemeyer