In Open Spaces

In Open Spaces

by Russell Rowland

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Set in the vast and unforgiving prairie of eastern Montana from 1916 to 1946, In Open Spaces is the compelling story of the Arbuckle brothers:

A rising baseball star who mysteriously drowns in the river

A World War I veteran who abandons his family only to return to reclaim the family ranch

The youngest brother, whose marriage to Helen creates a fault line between him and the rest of his family


A shrewd, observant man burdened with growing suspicions of Jack's role in his brother's death

With breathtaking descriptions of the Montana landscape, Russell Rowland masterfully weaves a fascinating tale of the psychological wars that can rip a family apart...and, ultimately, the redemption that can bring them back together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060084349
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/04/2002
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Firts Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 508,664
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Born in Bozeman, Russell Rowland is a fourth-generation Montanan. He served in the Navy, and has worked as a teacher, ranch hand, surveyor, lounge singer, and fortune-cookie writer. He lives in San Francisco.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Fall 1916

The windows of the old Model T rattled as the mail truck bounced along the winding gravel road from Belle Fourche, South Dakota, to Albion, Montana. It was well past midnight, and I tried to sleep, but my head bonked against the window each time I dozed, until it felt as if I'd grown a corner on my forehead. There was also the matter of Annie Ketchal, the driver, who loved to talk. When I saw that Annie was the driver that night, I cringed, because I knew I wouldn't get much sleep. Because of her job, she knew everyone, and not only did she know them, but she had a gift for finding out more about them than anyone else knew. At the age of fourteen, I usually found the information she passed on interesting, and sometimes even shocking, but on this night I simply wasn't interested in lives outside of my own.

"Sorry about your brother Blake," she said after a few miles.

"Thanks, Mrs. Ketchal," I answered, feeling my jaw tighten, my lower teeth settling against the upper.

My heart seemed to press against my chest, as if a strong hand had a firm grip on it, squeezing it tightly, telling it, "Don't beat... don't you dare beat." And I knew as sure as anything that this pain would never go away. I thought I would feel this bad for the rest of my life. My fourteen years hadn't taught me that you feel this kind of pain sometimes, and that although it may never completely disappear, it does fade. And if anyone had tried to explain that to me then, I would have silently told them to shut up and leave me alone, to let meget a little sleep. Just as I now silently wished that Annie Ketchal, as friendly as she was, would be quiet and let me and my struggling heart be.

I had been standing at the blackboard doing a math problem when the telegram arrived. I was an eighth-grader, just beginning my second year at the Belle Fourche School, fifty miles from the ranch. I boarded with an older couple during the week and caught the mail truck home most weekends to help with the harvest, or haying, or feeding the stock.

Brother George drowned in river.

read the telegram. My mother's words, as always, would never pass for poetry, but it told me everything I needed to know.

I gave the telegram to my teacher, and standing there as she read it, my mind reviewed all of the immediate concerns of a fourteen-year-old boy. First, I knew that I would be going home immediately. And I knew that there was a good chance that I wouldn't be coming back. I thought about the dollar a day I could earn if I stayed home, and wondered what I might be able to save up for. And I felt a certain sense of relief about not coming back, because in the year and change that I'd been in Belle Fourche, I had never adjusted to life in town. I didn't like the pace. I spent most of my time in the classroom wishing I was sitting on a horse in the middle of a broad pasture. I couldn't keep my mind on the books in front of me, especially when the sun was shining. And although I did well in school, I never felt the same satisfaction from getting a test with a big blue A on it as I did from stepping back and admiring a stack of hay I'd just pitched, or pulling the forelegs of a calf, watching it slosh to the ground and shake its moist head, ears flopping. At my core, I relished the thought of going home.

What I did not think about in the moment was that my life would completely change with this news. I thought about George and his baseball, and how he could scoop a ground ball and whip it to first base with such fluid grace that it seemed as if he caught the ball in the middle of his throwing motion. But I guess I wasn't ready to think about the fact that I would never see him again.

So when the teacher asked me if I was okay, I nodded without hesitation, and it was true at that particular moment.

"All right," she said. "You go on ahead then."

So I walked to the boarders' house, told them the news, packed my bag, and caught the mail truck home. But after several hours in the truck, the reality started to penetrate. I remembered a day the previous winter -- an early morning when we were out feeding the stock. It was colder than hell that morning, and George, Jack, Dad, and I were doing whatever we could think of to keep warm, pounding our gloved hands together, running in place, working our jaws to keep the skin on our faces from freezing. George was talking, as he often did. He was talking about cattle, and sheep.

"People talk about how stupid animals are," George said, stomping his boots against the ground. "But just look at this. Every morning, we get up and come out here to feed these bastards, who aren't at all cold. We come out here and risk our lives to wait on these animals, and they're the stupid ones? I think we're the stupid ones. Not only that, but we paid money for these sons of bitches. We paid money for the privilege of waiting on these goddam animals."

He kept along in the same vein, a half grin on his face the whole time, and the rest of us were laughing so hard, we felt warmer than we had all morning. Even Jack, who usually had little tolerance for George's monologues, was laughing. It...

In Open Spaces. Copyright © by Russell Rowland. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

C. Michael Curtis

“In Open sage, humane, and immensely readable.”

C.J. Box

“Russell Rowland’s In Open Spaces is as good as it gets...a powerful book.”

Ha Jin

“Charged with dramatic tension — a joy to read.”

Reading Group Guide


When the rising baseball star George Arbuckle is found drowned in a river, the devastation radiates through the family and the farm that they own and run. Set in the prairie of eastern Montana and written in the voice of George's brother, the shrewdly observant Blake Arbuckle, the story constellates around the choices that Blake is forced to make between home and independence and between loyalty and betrayal.

The escalating dramatic tension between family members becomes pronounced when the outsider rebel brother, Jack, abandons the family for a separate life only to return later to reclaim the family farm estate when he needs the money. A deserter gone AWOL during the World War, Jack proves himself as the dark focus of the family's arousing suspicions that he may have had a hand in his own brother's death. Rowland weaves a fascinating tale of the psychological wars within and the possible fratricide that bring a family apart and the redemption that brings them ultimately together again.

Questions for Discussion
  1. What role does the landscape play in this story?

  2. What is the significance of the title of this novel, as well as the titles of the three sections, Fire, Dust, and Water? How are these sections representative of the different phases in Blake's life?

  3. One of Blake's recurring questions during this story is "What was he/she like?". Do you see the answer to this question changing over the course of this story?

  4. What do you think motivates Jack to disappear from, and then come back to, the ranch?

  5. How do Blake and Jack's approaches to life/work differ, and how do these differences play out inthis story?

  6. This story takes place during a time when women supposedly played a secondary role. How do the women in this story assert their power?

  7. What do you think motivates Rita to stay on the ranch after Jack disappears?

  8. How does the lack of communication (i.e. telephone, easy access to your neighbors) affect the lives of these people? Why doesn't their isolation make them more talkative when they are around other people?

  9. How is Blake's relationship with Sophie different from the one with Rita, aside from their sexual involvement?

  10. There are several strong themes in this book. What would you say they are, and which of them was most significant to you?

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In Open Spaces 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
davidabrams on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Topographically, Montana looks like a half-crumpled sheet of paper. The western side is wrinkled with mountains, puddled with lakes, and sluiced by rivers. This is the part of the state which, when you run your fingers over a topo globe, feels like that paper-mache project you made in second grade. But let your fingers travel eastward and somewhere around 109 degrees longitude the sheet of paper flattens out. Here, the landscape is barren of Rocky Mountain upthrust and the only waterfall you're likely to see is when a customer accidentally knocks a glass off the table at CC's Family Café in Glendive. Miles City. Sanders. Sand Springs. Broadus. Even the names of the towns sound like prairie grass hissing in the wind. This unwrinkled side of the state can be unforgiving with its blizzards, droughts and skin-withering wind; but it can be just as beautiful with its skyscraper-size clouds, undulating hills and blanket of welcome silence. On some roads, you can drive for hours before seeing a car in the opposite lane. When you do, you lift one finger off the steering wheel by way of greeting then drive on, your mingled plumes of dust still hanging over the road like mist. It's not the easiest of places to live; you either love it, or you leave it. I tell you all this by way of introduction to Russell Rowland's novel In Open Spaces so that you'll know you're entering a particular (and often peculiar) place when you open its pages. As you might expect from people who have been battered by bad weather and rotten luck but remain upright as stubborn cottonwoods, Eastern Montanans can be a quiet, determined group of folks. You don't have to be stoic to live here¿but it helps. As one character in Rowland's novel observes, the land "beats the holy hell out of folks." The family at the center of In Open Spaces, the Arbuckles, sure has taken its share of beatings, starting on page ten when the book's narrator, Blake, is standing in his eighth-grade classroom fifty miles from the family ranch and gets a heart-squeezing telegram from his mother: Brother George drowned in river. Those five words resonate throughout the rest of the novel, which follows the fortunes and misfortunes (but mostly misfortunes) of the Arbuckles from 1916 to 1946. Blake suspects his older brother Jack might have had something to do with eldest brother George's death, but in true Montana fashion, he says nothing about it to anyone else. The family also keeps its collective trap shut when hot-blooded Jack gets in a fight with his father and abruptly leaves the ranch to join the Army. Little is said years later when he returns with a new wife, Rita¿a woman who ignites romantic feelings inside Blake. This is just one more complication for the guy¿he's already struggling with questions about Jack's loyalty and whether he has the right to be the next heir in line to own the family ranch. When youngest brother Bob brings his new bride, Helen, back to live on the ranch, the entire family fractures and nearly disintegrates. But it¿s the land which continues to bind them together. The author, a fourth-generation Montanan who now lives in San Francisco, has an feel for his characters and their land that's as intimate as a husband running his fingers across his wife's body. Rowland knows Montana like the husband knows his wife's hip. It's quieter still at night, when you can sit for hours at a stretch and hear nothing except the crickets, or the occasional cluck of a chicken. At night, the darkness seems to add to the silence, making it heavier, somehow more imposing. It is a silence that can be too much for some, especially people who aren't fond of their own company. And it seems that living in such silence makes you think twice before speaking, or laughing, or crying. Because when sounds are that scarce, they carry more weight. Silence settles over the Arbuckle family in these pages, too. When they do crack their lips to speak, you can hear the jawbones groan. This novel is fill
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is rare that an author captures what life was like in Eastern Montana during the Depression. Russ did a fantastic job of keeping my interest while at the same time educating the reader as to what life was like when my parents grew up in Eastern Montana. It's a great story. Some say too true to life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
We not only see Montana ranching in its routine, backbreaking life wrenching reality while letting the reader know of the beautiful country, the seasons and the animals that make this state special. The Arbuckle brothers their competition and rivalry are so clearly portrayed. Blake sees all but is yet naive. An excellent read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really loved this book. Great descriptions of Montana, great characters, good twists in the plot, and very emotional. I reccomend this book to any reader.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although the author describes the setting of Montana beautifully, the story is very boring and depressing. An easy read that is very predidible. I wouldn't have bought it except I had to read it for a college course. Don't waste your money.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just bought this on a whim and am happy I did. I grew up on a small farm in Ohio, much different than that in Montana, but could still see similarities in the communities and family. If you are looking for a great escape, to return to your roots, and to rekindle what it's like to really be human, this story will do it. I can't believe it sits so far down on BN's list of sellers!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a beautiful book. Think Harrison's LEGENDS OF THE FALL meets Haruf's PLAINSONG. I won't go into the plot of the book or flesh out the main characters, you can find that elsewhere for yourself. Just know that this books gets it right. All of it.