After making Richard Ford’s acquaintance over the past couple of years through his Frank Bascombe trilogy, which he then made a tetralogy, I have turned back to the short story collection he published in 1987. Rock Springs (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987) is set largely in the mid-western wheat growing state of Montana. Ford knows the country and his territory well. Until one reaches the Rockies in the west of Montana there is almost no geographical feature of note apart from the Missouri. The roads and the rail tracks are all but straight, especially the road north from Havre all the way to Canada.
The stories reflect the scenery and how it affects the lives of the people there, especially the young people who in the post-war years, through radio, newspapers and military service, were becoming aware of an even larger world out there. There are still long-distance sleeper trains that trundle across the prairie so slowly that the events of a story spread over many hours can all take place on board. There are mile-long freight trains carrying coal or wheat. The state is a rich source of gold. There are Indians and half-Indians (now of course First Nation people) as well as the immigrant stock. The army and air force are a presence in Fort Benton and elsewhere.
Many of these elements provide the background details of stories involving hope and despair, teenage ennui and adult adultery. Whoever are the protagonists, Ford uses his acute observation, empathy and liquid prose to describe and illuminate them. This is relatively early Ford but as a writer he had already hit his stride with the first of the Bascombe books, published the previous year. For all short story readers, this book should be on their list.