The overlap between veterinary medicine and writing fiction, as it turns out, is wide.
That’s what Sid Gustafson has found out, anyway.
Gustafson came to veterinary medicine about as honestly as you can. His father, Rib Gustafson, drove the gravel roads of the Golden Triangle for decades treating animals. Gustafson the son tagged along with his dad on his adventures and later helped with the family ranch on the Two Medicine. Eventually, Gustafson turned to veterinary medicine too, but there was something missing.
“To go through veterinary school and pre-vet school, it’s eight years of college, and you’re deprived of the humanities. They make you take all this science,” Gustafson said. “I sort of felt left out.”
As a working vet in Bozeman in the 1990s, Gustafson took up fiction writing and started taking literature classes at Montana State University and signing up for workshops in creative writing.
His motivation for writing is straightforward.
“You see things wrong with the world and you want to make them right,” Gustafson mused.
Gustafson is outspoken when it comes to animal welfare. There’s hot iron calf branding – he calls it “abusive” and “inefficient.” And there’s horseracing, which he’s written about for the New York Times. Gustafson argues for changes in how horses are treated that will result in a more humane sport. He criticizes the use of electric collars in dog training, preferring a type of training without punishment or discipline of the dog.
By writing fiction, Gustafson hopes to right what he sees as wrongs.
In his novels he writes about Montana, about horses, about the people who make their lives living on land that is haunted by its history.
In the 1960s, when Gustafson was a teen, he followed his dad, who was testing cattle for brucellosis on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
During their travels, they’d stop by one of the boarding schools.
“It was an unfortunate place,” Gustafson recalled.
The boarding school stuck with him, and when Gustafson wrote his latest book, this year’s Horseracing in America, he returned to that experience. The two main characters are former inmates of the boarding school.
Years before, in 1964, Gustafson was a 10-year-old kid at a Catechism class when they heard over the radio about massive floodwaters. When he went home after class, he discovered his dad getting his horses ready to help look for survivors.
It was a rescue mission that quickly turned to a search for the dead.
Gustafson imagined that search in his 2016 novel Swift Dam, in which the aging vet Alphonse “Fingers” Vallerone recalls his experience as a young man 50 years prior, riding his horse through the muddied landscape after the swollen waters of Birch Creek breached the novel’s eponymous dam.
Vallerone – who Gustafson said has a lot of Rib Gustafson in him – is a man haunted in many ways by the flood of 1964, simultaneously Montana’s worst natural disaster, causing the death of 31 people, and a tragedy few discussed.
The short novel, written in a clear, direct style, echoes the reticence of its main characters and the sparse landscape.
“It’s very spare, but I think it’s a spare country,” said Deirdre McNamer, who knew Gustafson as a child in Conrad. McNamer, who also lived for a time in Cut Bank as a teen, is a retired creative writing professor at the University of Montana and author of several novels.
“I think he really captures a lot about the place, and the wind, and a certain kind of powerful emptiness that we all are familiar with,” McNamer continued.
The story of Swift Dam has resonated with people like McNamer, who remember the flood. At Cassiopeia Books, an independent bookstore in Great Falls, owner Andrew Guschausky has found readers interested in the subject matter.
“There’s not a lot of stuff written on it,” Guschausky said.
“It seems to be a particularly interesting, maybe even haunting, moment in our state’s history, so because people have that interest, I often point them to Sid’s book,” he added.
And while the flood left its scars on the land, it was not often discussed, as journalist and Washington State University journalism professor Ben Shors discovered when he was interviewing survivors for his 2019 documentary, The Blackfeet Flood.
“This was a story that many people didn’t discuss for decades,” Shors wrote in an email. “Again and again, survivors told us stories they had told no others, stories that went untold even within the close-knit families on the Blackfeet Reservation.”
The Valier Public Library has the book in its holdings, said librarian Cathy Brandvold.
The Swift Dam that broke in 1964, Gustafson contends, “was shoddily built and not maintained, and the lesson would be, if you’re going to build dams, build them right. It was a predictable failure.”
Writing about the sins of the past, from a dam that broke when it shouldn’t have to the boarding school system to the abuses in horseracing, is present in Gustafson’s work. The past is palpable in his work.
Growing up, Gustafson spent a lot of time on his family’s ranch on the Two Medicine.
“The only entertainment other than work was to read books,” Gustafson said. So he read books.
He also developed a respect for the Blackfeet and their storytelling tradition. He counts his time with mentors such as Billy Big Spring, on whose land Rib Gustafson ran some of his cattle before buying the Two Medicine ranch as formative.
He learned how to observe people in those days.
“A lot of my storytelling I was taught by the Blackfeet, by listening to their stories, so I try to emulate that – poorly,” he said.
Writing novels is about “the observation of people,” he said. Practicing good veterinary medicine isn’t much different. Recently, he helped at a cat clinic in New York. The veterinarians there ran tests on the animals. Gustafson watched them.
He learned that technique from his dad and from other ranchers he worked with over the years, including Bill Rumney, with whom he worked closely as the resident vet at the Rumney Ranch. They watched their cows – the eyes, the ears, their gait – and they knew if the animal was sick or ready to calve, “or a hundred different things.”
But that knack for observation has served Gustafson well, in both his occupations.
Guschausky sees Gustafson’s work in the same tradition as other Montana literature.
“That’s a particular strain in Montana creative writing. Not only that sense of place but that real reverence for the place that you’re writing about,” he said.
Gustafson has learned, however, that quality storytelling doesn’t necessarily mean big sales and recognition. While his first novel, Prisoners of Flight, was published in New York and reviewed widely and positively, that didn’t lead to an easy road.
“None of the novels sold well enough for the publisher to be encouraged to support another, or they felt that my next novel wasn’t suitable,” he said.
Gustafson has felt the bruises of the publishing business, but he keeps publishing well-reviewed novels, and keeps writing. He’s working on a couple right now.
“I’m still hoping to write the big one that does make money,” quipped Gustafson, at home in Bozeman, close to his kids and his grandson, and a dog named Batman, who just graduated from a training program in herding sheep.
But in the next breath, Gustafson revises his statement somewhat. There’s something else on his mind.
“Money hardly makes any difference anymore,” he said. “Get read – that more people read it. The message goes further.”