The Right Coast

April 28, 2005
Vardis Fisher and such
By Tom Smith

Vardis Fisher is probably the most quintessentially Idahoan writer of the last century. Not Hemingway, who vacationed in Sun Valley, which does not make someone an Idahoan. Sun Valley is not actually part of Idaho, although it is located within the boundaries of the state. It's fine; I like it; it's just not Idaho. I also like Hemingway. He's from Minnesota or someplace equally flat that is said to have good fishing. He spent a lot of time in Paris with some lesbian writer who didn't like Oakland.

I am reminded of Fisher because there arrived from Amazon today a new copy of Fisher's novel Mountain Man, a fictionalized account of mountain man John Johnson. The novel was the basis of the movie Jerimiah Johnson, which starred Robert Redford in one of his better performances.

Vardis Fisher was an interesting character. His father was a Mormon bishop in a Mormon splinter sect. They lived in tiny place in southeastern Idaho I have never heard of, and I have heard of Soda Springs. He rejected his faith to become a militant atheist and is still something of a hero in the annals of American atheism. Fisher got a Ph.D. in something, anthropology? English?, from the University of Chicago. (An interesting history could be written about the influence of the University of Chicago in the mountain states. Norman McLean, another great western writer, was also a Chicago graduate and professor. The other university that most shaped the Western voice, if you will, was probably Stanford. Wallace Stegner, etc.) He returned to Idaho and wrote a series of novels, some of them extremely odd, but some of them pretty good.

There is a family connection for me. My favorite aunt, nee Camelia Coughlin, married a wealthy rancher in eastern Idaho, which was Vardis Fisher country. Lonely and bored with ranch life, Mugga, as we called her, became a drinking buddy of Fisher's. There were allegedly pretty tight, though I have no reason to suspect they were lovers. This was in the 1950's, and things were different then. For one thing, eveybody drank a lot more. Mugga died of throat cancer when I was about 12; she smoked like chimney and drank, well, a lot. She used to come and rescue me from fifth grade detention under the tyranny of Sister Ambrosia, a nun who had serious issues arising from the fact that she was a psychotic, evil bitch. Mugga would tell the most outrageous lies to get me out of detention, often revolving around my needing to go to the doctor for various alarming but fictional ailments. Having divorced one rancher, she married another, the widower of her older sister, Florence, who had died of cancer. Mugga's husband, Sandy, was a small, flinty Scotsman who was Old Army, as in cavalry. He served with Patton in World War II. The ash trays in his house were old spent tank rounds. In the interwar years, the Army was all about horses, or at least Patton was. Florence, who like her sister (and my mother of course) was a beauty, was allowed to ride the General's horses at Fort Benning (I think Benning-- somewhere in Georgia), I suspect because the General didn't mind beautiful women riding his horses. Sandy Laidlaw was one of those small, hard Scots. His ancestors were among the first settlers of Idaho, running sheep as Scots will do, with summer pastures in the Sawtooths, for those of you who know your Idaho geography. My father describes flying with Sandy back before the government took the ranch for inheritance taxes. You would circle the dirt airstrip, passing the bottle around until everyone felt ready to attempt a landing, then you would tilt the Piper Cub forward and pray like hell. The whole clan was intensely religious.

Anyway, Vardis Fisher is good because he at least tries to capture some of the gritty reality of the 19th century West. Even so, he cleans it up considerably. According to legend, the real Johnson was vengeance crazed serial killer who, after his family was slaughtered by Native Americans, vowed war against the Crow, and over the years killed some 300 warriors, and, uh, there's no nice way to put this, ate their livers. Hence his nickname, "Liver Eatin' Johnson." No sense wasting good meat, I guess. Or maybe it was a spiritual thing. I don't recall Robert Redford eating any livers. Not very Sundancey, I guess. On the other hand, this webmaster says Johnson was really Johnston, who was really Garrison, gave up mountain manning, died in a VA hospital in Los Angeles in 1899, and probably did not eat any livers. Me, I bet he ate a few, but not 300.