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Montana's Flaring White Nationalism Prominent In New Ray Ring Novel

Former journalist who worked for High Country News in Bozeman, unfurls a murder mystery that flows from the gridiron of college football and interracial relationship

Gumshoe journalist Ray Ring, who has a knack for storytelling, on the trail of a plot certain to turn heads. Photo courtesy Steve Sweeney
Gumshoe journalist Ray Ring, who has a knack for storytelling, on the trail of a plot certain to turn heads. Photo courtesy Steve Sweeney

by Todd Wilkinson

My friendship with Ray Ring has been primarily as a cohort. We’ve both walked through the long fire of writing about environmental issues in the West, occasionally having bylines in the same publications and sometimes exchanging notes about stories we’ve been working on as competitors. 

In Greater Yellowstone, where Ring held down a post as head of the Northern Rockies desk for High Country News, we had an extraordinary cast of contemporaries, all of whom today are sometimes left dumbstruck by the pace of bell-spinning changes happening to this region.

Ring is one of those who “retired” from journalism and decamped from Bozeman to Tucson in the Sonoran Desert but rather than halting his writing, he’s segued back to something he’s savored. And it’s one of the things I’ve always admired and envied—his ability to do journalism in his day job but pen novels at night. And now his former evening yen fully absorbs his time. 

So imagine this opening scene in his new novel, Montana Blues: A Black athlete, former star player for the Montana State University Bobcats is about to get out of prison at the state penitentiary in Deerlodge. His crusading attorneys have delivered evidence that he was framed for the murder of his girlfriend. 

From there, the action figuratively and literally plays out through bad winter weather and, by the end, threading the needle of mayhem, two protagonists emerge as damned fine amateur sleuths, worthy of being characters in a book by C.J. Box or Craig Johnson. 

Ring, as he says, has made his living as a writer for more than 35 years, focusing on “underdogs and bad actors, human absurdities and the need for equal rights, environmental science and our drift toward dystopia.” He studied in six public universities without fitting into any ivory towers, and did a range of blue-collar work as a young man. 

He knows a bit about how to fell a tree and how to drive a bulldozer and a fire engine. His three previous novels—Arizona Kiss, Telluride Smile and Peregrine Dream—were handled by traditional publishers. And he's won a dozen national journalism awards.

This time, I interviewed him about Montana Blues and some of its elements that will not only hold the reader but could stir up a bit of controversy as the plot runs parallel to real issues now present in the state involving racial tension and twisted perceptions. 

TODD WILKINSON: There are lots of ‘I didn't see that coming moments’ to the plot. How long has this book been gelling?

RAY RING: A long time. I did a first draft in 1997 and it needed more work, but I had to put it aside to focus on journalism for cash flow while my wife and I raised our kids. It's difficult to make a living on any kind of writing, and novels are the most difficult. Then seven years ago, with the kids launched, I retired from journalism and refocused on this novel, doing a complete rewrite and draft after draft of tuning and fine tuning it. All enjoyable hard work for this novelist.

TW: You lived in Bozeman for several years and oversaw the Northern Rockies desk of High Country News. Obviously, from that tenure, you acquired a great handle on the culture around here. What made you choose an African American protagonist, a college football recruit who comes to play for MSU? 

RING: For a long time in my writing, I've been interested in the cultural mixing and conflicts in the West. I put a struggling Black immigrant on the cover of High Country News in 1995—he'd grown up in a village in Mali and was brought to a Colorado ski resort that needed workers willing to accept low pay. 

I also pushed HCN cover stories on Native American troubles, and Mexican conservation efforts near the U.S. border. During my 20 years living in Montana, I saw the lack of diversity. The U.S. Census has determined that among all the states, Montana has the lowest percentage of Black residents (less than one percent). Now we're in a moment of our nation's history for reckoning with racial issues, and I wanted to get into that in Montana Blues.

TW: Without giving too much away, the book dives into white nationalism that has been simmering in Montana and Idaho for decades and flared even more with the Trump effect. I wrote about some of that for HCN myself. What do you make of that, and why is it so fascinating to you?

RING: I think Trump and the modern Republican Party have exposed how, in much of the U.S., little progress has occurred on racial issues. Millions of Americans seem proud of their racism now—they're not hiding it anymore—and politicians are encouraging them. It's also a good time for opposing racism, and that tension is territory for a novelist.

TW: Where does the title come from? The reason I ask is there was once a pair of young sisters, who identified as “white separatists” in Kalispell and formed a neo-punk rock band called “Prussian Blue.” Any correlation?

RING: No, the blues—I like the origin of the term, in the music created by poor Southern Black people, and I like how the term evolved to have a broad meaning. I've got the blues big time these days, many of us do, considering our politics and climate change trends and our trashing of all species including ourselves.

TW: You mentioned in a recent phone chat about how you, as an investigative journalist, went undercover as an inmate in a prison in Arizona and got beat up by members of the Aryan Brotherhood. That sounded harrowing. Any lessons you want to impart to younger folk reading this about why they don't want to get in trouble with the law?

RING: Our culture celebrates outlaws, as far back as our illegal rebellion against a British king, and the thread runs through Billy the Kid the admirable robber, and Crazy Horse the Lakota warrior against the oppressive U.S. cavalry, and Mohammed Ali choosing prison for resisting the military draft during the bogus Vietnam War. 

We romanticize outlaws in general, and that can encourage people to commit crimes. I grew up having that attitude, but my experience inside the hell of our prison system, and getting roughed up by the Aryan Brotherhood—a gang that intimidates all colors of inmates and guards—knocked that attitude out of me. Or almost out of me. Outlaws who are right in some way and don't hurt the innocent, that's still romantic, you know?
We romanticize outlaws in general, and that can encourage people to commit crimes. I grew up having that attitude, but my experience inside the hell of our prison system, and getting roughed up by the Aryan Brotherhood—a gang that intimidates all colors of inmates and guards—knocked that attitude out of me."  – Ray Ring
TW: Being away from a place sometimes affords a clearer-eyed perspective on it. I want to ask you about the changes you're witnessing up here. You and your wife, Linda, still own a house in Bozeman. And you wrote perhaps the first comprehensive look at how disorganized planning has been in Big Sky. In fact, Big Sky factors into the plot of Montana Blues. What stood out there then, and do you see Big Sky as a symbol of how unready Montana has been for dealing with growth?

RING: It's obvious that the people running Big Sky and much of Montana put profits over the environment, despite the state constitution emphasizing protection of our environment. You can see it in the pollution-fueled algae increasing in the Gallatin River. Big Sky still has no formal town government to guide development to be wiser, and Montana's current governor and the Legislature are trying to strangle state government's protections of the environment. I think almost all Montanans still share a love for the landscape and clean waters, but the politics have only gotten worse.

TW: As I mentioned on the phone, the book really tees up the main characters for a sequel. Is that in the works?

RING: Well, I do like Dawson and Rose, the main characters in Montana Blues. I like spending time with them and I like seeing the world through their perspectives, and their interactions would continue to be lively in any future novel. My problem, at this stage of my life, I have several more novels on my to-do list—novels I began writing years ago and still interest me—and probably I don't have enough years left to carry out all of my ideas. Pretty soon I'll pick one idea and grow it into the next completed novel, but I don't know if Dawson and Rose will be in it. Maybe. I know it would be fun and meaningful.

TW: How is it living in the desert and being away from Montana. And what are you working on now?

RING: The Arizona desert is like Montana in that both are powerful, dangerous settings. If you have a bit of bad luck or make a bad choice the desert will kill you, and Montana will kill you; rattlesnakes or grizzly bears. So, I like both places for their suspense and power. As for the writing, I'm making progress on figuring out the next novel, while also savoring the amazing gift of life in my early 70s, surviving this long, the sunlight coming through the branches, the birds and the bobcats doing their thing, thank you very much.

TW: It’s great to reconnect, old friend. By the way, your novel provides a great escape and, as with all of your work, the story stays with you. You think about it. It causes a stir. Many thanks.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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