Magazine article The American Conservative

A Gem of a State

Magazine article The American Conservative

A Gem of a State

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I am polybiblious--not, I hope, polybilious--in that I often read two books over the same period, alternating as the mood strikes. Seldom are they counterpoints or complements; they are merely the cheerfully incongruous products of happenstance. During a recent week of travel, I paired Vardis Fisher, Idaho's gift to local color and regional history, with a whole lotta pages (When Giants Walked the Earth) on Led Zeppelin, a headachingly boring band I have never liked, not for a single godforsaken beat. (I did learn that Led Zeppelin's most interesting, if sinister, member, Aleister Crowley disciple Jimmy Page, votes Tory.)

Yesterday I broke up Willa Cather with a 1952 hockey novel for boys (Scrubs on Skates) written by Scott Young. I'd long wanted to read one of Young's YA novels. He is the father of Neil "There is a town in North Ontario" Young, provincial Canada's gift to American music. Scott's edifying tale is set in Winnipeg and references streets also mentioned in Randy Bachman's melancholic anthem of Manitoba (and its betrayal by talented sons), "Prairie Town."

You will note that the only obscure figure cited above is the one who stayed home: Vardis Fisher, who is known today, if at all, as the author of Mountain Man, source of one of Robert Redford's best films, "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972), scripted by the anarchist surfer John Milius.

Vardis didn't surf, but the apostate Mormon did play football (150-pound starting center for the University of Utah), tutor Wallace Stegner, novelize his place and his frontier forebears, and compile a WPA guide to Idaho in the publication series that is the New Deal's best legacy. He also drove away most of his modest readership by producing a bizarre 12-book history of mankind called the Testament of Man. That's the thing about cranks: they can't help themselves.

Like so many American writers, Vardis Fisher hated FDR, despised the regimenting state, and proclaimed "a distaste for American graves in foreign fields, no matter how thick the poppies might be." (Project for a young Idahoan: track down and write up the political columns Fisher penned for the Idaho Daily Statesman, which sound like 180-proof Old Right.)

Fisher seems to have been almost a parody of the cantankerous libertarian/ village atheist. …

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