“The Flood Girls” captures small-town Montana

Richard Fifield understands small towns. Growing up in Troy, Montana, population 957, Fifield gained a bittersweet love of close knit communities. That love-hate relationship is in part the subject of Fifield’s debut novel, “The Flood Girls.”

“The Flood Girls” follows the story of Rachel Flood, an outcast of the fictional town of Quinn, Montana. Rachel is a recovering alcoholic who was known as the town harlot, and never fit in well in Quinn. After nine years, she returns home to make amends with her mother, Laverna, who runs a local bar called the Dirty Shame, and is captain of a softball team called the Flood Girls. Rachel befriends a fellow outcast named Jake — a twelve-year-old with a love for vintage clothes and Madonna. Though Laverna and the townsfolk are reluctant to receive Rachel, circumstances force them together as the Flood Girls go for their first state championship.

The book deals with small-town Montana, but Fifield does not fall into the Western-writer category. “I do think it’s wildly important to broaden the idea of Western literature,” he said. “Our experiences are so much more than gritty and hardscrabble. There is beauty and broad humor in our lives — not just stoicism.”

The novel also deals with some heavy topics — feminism, sexuality, alcoholism and acceptance. The core of the book’s characters are female. And more, they are not traditional females in traditional female roles. Laverna is hard as brass, as are the hard-drinking members of the softball team — Martha Man Hands, Black Mabel and others. Rachel, too, is not easy to pin down. She defies what Fifield terms female “comeuppance.” “In most books, a woman with an active sex life is treated like a pariah, and she must pay for her sexuality,” Fifield said. “That’s not how the real world works, and I wanted readers to see that, especially younger women.” Rachel is unrepentant of her promiscuous past, and though she wants to make amends, she is not apologizing for her actions. Fifield claims “True equality is creating female characters who are original, and unique, and navigate the world in their own specific way.” Rachel never is required to submit to her town’s wishes.

Jake, Rachel’s young friend, is as ostracized as Rachel, but for different reasons. His eccentric tastes and homosexuality motivates the town’s scorn. Setting is vital for the portrayal of Jake and Rachel’s places in Quinn. “I set the book in 1991 for a reason — things were much different then, especially the discomfort with homosexuality,” Fifield noted. However, though Quinn is fearful of Rachel and Jake’s differences, Fifield sees hope in our recent history. “We have come so very far in the last 25 years,” he said. “As a gay kid in Troy in 1991, I never could have dreamed that our society would change so quickly towards inclusion and respect of diversity. It’s awesome!” Part of the message of the book is the changes that Quinn itself undergoes.

“The Flood Girls” also showcases Fifield’s love of dark humor. Though funny, the story covers serious topics, and often mocks them with laughter. For Fifield, this is essential: “I think there is no finer literary constraint than laughter through tears,” he said, adding, “I just hope to get the mix of comedy and tragedy right.”

Country Bookshelf will host an event with Fifield on Wednesday, March 23, at 7 p.m. Fifield will discuss the book, host a signing and read selected passages.