Over his lifetime, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, speaker and teacher Craig Lesley has scratched out a living as a river guide, a longshoreman and a farmworker.
By Jennifer Strange
For the DC Herald
At the age of 15, he nearly lost his life on a ranch in eastern Oregon when his pelvis was crushed in an accident with a mint harvester.
Once he became a writer, Lesley used his working class background to inform and re-interpret the myths of the American West. His 2005 memoir, Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood, tells the story of Lesley’s challenging childhood on the open range. He interweaves his rural background with his adult struggles to be the good father he never had to a Hidatsa foster son from North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
The memorable book “paints an indelible portrait of subsistence existence,” said the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and captures what author William Kittredge calls “the heartbreak of living out of the loop in rural America.”
Lesley will share some of these and other stories from his life as a rural resident and as a leading figure in the contemporary literature of the American West at the High Plains Cultural Center in Killdeer on Saturday, March 5.
“Reading America’s Rural West” begins at 5:30 p.m. with a Social Hour featuring hors d’oeuvres, wine and punch. Live music by Watford City’s own singer-songwriter Jessie Veeder will be followed by storytelling, reading and a Q&A with Lesley. After his presentation, Lesley will sign books. Books and Veeder’s CDs will be for sale.
The event is free, open to the public and presented by the literary nonprofit Dunn County Writers. On Sunday, March 6, Lesley will lead “Western Wordsmithing: A Generative Workshop,” also at the HPCC.
“This is the first of two Visiting Writers Series we will produce in 2016,” said DCW Executive Director Jennifer Strange. “Craig Lesley is such a natural fit for western North Dakota. Not only has he visited the area as a foster father and as a teacher, but he has also written extensively about our region in several of his award-winning novels.”
Most of Lesley’s work is set in the American West, with characters of European and Native descent who struggle to overcome the family and financial issues that seem to go hand-in-hand with rural life. Two of his four novels—The Sky Fisherman and Storm Riders—were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
“I grew up in small Eastern Oregon towns and my mother was a single parent, moving from job to job,” said Lesley. “Madras, Oregon was my favorite place, population 1,400. My uncle Oscar had a sporting goods store there. I use him as my main character in The Sky Fisherman. He taught me to hunt and fish.”
Lesley’s novel Winterkill tells the story of a father and son in search of healing in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon, traditionally the land of the Nez Perce. And River Song features the battle over Columbia River salmon fishing rights among Indian, white and commercial fisherman.
Lesley said his rural background taught him how important the landscape is. This is something he has in common with North Dakota writers of all experience levels—when you live in the rural American West, there’s no getting away from Mother Nature.
Writing the stories of the places and people of America’s Rural West is of value to today’s readers and to future generations. Folks continue to move away from North Dakota in record numbers, leaving those who stay to preserve the legacy of life in this day and age.
“I think it’s important to write about the places we inhabit and particularly places like Dunn County, where so much rapid change has taken place with the oil industry,” Lesley said. “What activities illuminate Dunn County? What has persevered? Rodeo? Church? Food festivals? High school sports?”
These are some of the topics he hopes to discuss during his March 5-6 stay in Killdeer.
Lesley has received three Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Awards, the Western Writers of America Golden Spur Award for Best Novel and an Oregon Book Award. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kathryn Stavrakis. He has three adult children—two daughters and a son. One of his daughters, Elena Lesley, will be joining him on his March visit to western North Dakota.
Partial funding for the Dunn County Writers Visiting Writer Series is generously provided by the North Dakota Humanities Council.
Event co-sponsors include the Dunn County Herald, First International Bank & Trust, High Plains Cultural Center and Cobblestone Hotel & Suites. Event supporters include the Dunn County Historical Society & Museum, Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing, Killdeer Pharmacy, Nana Lil’s and Quality Quick Print.
“Our region continues to coalesce around the Dunn County Writers’ mission of building community around the cultural and literary arts,” Strange said. “We are grateful to all the folks and groups and businesses who help us realize this goal.”
Learn more about Craig Lesley at www.craiglesley. com. Learn more about NDHC at www.ndhumanities.org. For information or to learn more about sponsoring: Jennifer Strange, Dunn County Writers: 541.944.4131, firstname.lastname@example.org.