Calvin Sidey is a man out of time, an aging cowboy who has lived off the grid with few possessions, self-isolating by choice. Shaped by his experiences and the independent character of a Montanan, Sidey is chronically ill-suited to town life. Since his French-born wife’s tragic death when visiting the country of her birth, Calvin has etched out a solitary existence, neglecting his children’s emotional needs in his grief and bearing that guilt in silence, the gulf created never really breached. Yet when his son, Bill, who has a successful real estate business in Gladstone, asks Calvin to stay with Ann and Will while he takes his wife, Marjorie, to Missoula for an operation, the elder Sidey agrees to the request: “Was the son asking the father for help or was the son trying to help the father?”
Calvin’s instinctive reluctance and Bill’s discomfort in requesting his father’s help illustrate the basic awkwardness of their relationship. Bill
is worried that he has made a mistake, the tall, rangy Calvin all but a stranger to his grandchildren. With few words and a consciously serious mien, Calvin demands a bed in the basement rather than take anyone else’s room. In contrast to Bill’s tentative approach to fatherhood and marriage, the stoic Calvin is a breath of fresh air, affronted by his son’s gentler nature, his success in the 1960s community looking toward the future. This temporary return is a poor fit for a World War II veteran who found his mate in France only to lose her in the prime of their lives, the past crowding out the present.
Watson’s individual personalities are as distinctive as the Montana landscape.
The Sideys are a family in transition, a virtual stranger, albeit a blood relative, suddenly thrust into the home where he once lived with his family what seems like a lifetime ago. As Bill and Marjorie head to a city for an operation they hope will restore her health, Calvin unpacks his few belongings in the basement, unaware that
17-year-old Ann is grappling with the unwanted attentions of a possessive boyfriend and
11-year-old Will is finding it difficult to fit in with a group of boys both stronger and more aggressive than his stature and courage can accommodate. Their early meetings are clumsy, filled with awkward silences, yet Sidey’s presence is an anchor in a household of unresolved problems and a vague sense of threat.
Beautifully rendered characters bring Gladstone and the Sidey family in particular vividly to life.
Perhaps none are so fascinating (besides Calvin) as Beverly Lodge, the widow who lives next door and remembers Calvin Sidey from her youth, only ten years younger than the man the town still tells stories about. Beverly’s expansive heart yearns for more than tending to her garden and cooking for the divorced son who has taken up residence in her basement to write his novel.
Even though Calvin brings his own brand of order to the problems in the Sidey household while Bill and Marjorie are gone, Beverly seizes the opportunity for more than the small portion she has been allotted, undeterred in her efforts to know the stubborn Calvin, seeing more in the steel-willed old man than his disappointment in life. Though he deals with injustice in his own manner, her generous spirit and refusal to be silenced offer some of the novel’s most tender and memorable moments.
Already burdened with the Sidey family history, Calvin assumes the role of protector while his son is in Missoula.
The old man is resurrected from the small space he has occupied contentedly for years, responding to the needs of his grandchildren and the affection of a woman who refuses to be ignored. Though his natural inclination is to respond to trouble in kind, Calvin is out of practice, his heart unexpectedly cracked open. The world has changed too much by 1960, left no room for a man who once understood what life required from him. Having faced his own dark night of the soul in Missoula, Bill ponders the wisdom or fallacy of asking Calvin to stay with Will and Ann, both of whom have felt surprisingly safe with their taciturn grandfather. Thanks to the irrepressible Widow Lodge, the extraordinary protagonist is more than an unhappy old man who finds life alone more bearable. He is an American original, the iconic cowboy with a personal code that often clashes with contemporary society, a misfit who has lost his place. Sidey bears the scars of this mythology, his heart alive to tenderness, if only for a while, shaped by a world that has forgotten him.