Telling the stories of strong frontier women
By David Reese
Mae Schick looked out through the open slats of an old farmhouse toward the frothy whitecaps on Flathead Lake.
Underneath her boots lay the remains of a life long gone. Someone had lived here long ago in this broken down old place, and Schick wondered what might have happened to them.
Was this a butchering shed, or a bedroom? Bird droppings were caked several inches thick on the floor. Remnants of an electric hot plate lay among the broken floorboards and feathers, and an old rusted file poked out through the dirt.
There were clues to life here.
But whose life?
Schick is a student of history, and frontier images like this one crop up in her new book, “Lila.”
The book tells the story of German immigrants from Russia who arrive in South Dakota, then move on to Missoula, where Zupicich herself was raised.
At the center of the story, Lila is a free-thinking woman confined to the rigid male structure of German immigrants. She yearns for a life of her own, a family and happiness. Lila struggles with conformity but finds freedom daunting. There are ways to survive both — and Lila has to navigate these delicate waters.
Bigfork author Mae Schick stands at an old homestead near Bigfork. David Reese photo
‘She went to bed early. Her evenings were used for catching up on the mending or sewing aprons or little dresses for the baby out of the cloth from the flour bags. Sometimes, if there wasn’t anything that needed doing, she embroidered pillowslips. She made them as wedding presents for young couples in the church who planned to marry. The bright threads caught on the rough cracks from her hands or her jagged fingernails. She loved the brilliant Chinese red. It was her favorite color, so she used it for accents. She wasn’t agile like Iris but loved to add the color only after she had made use of the other colors first. When she pulled it into the fabric she was like a child who loves the jelly center of a doughnut and eats all the way around the middle to save the tasty moment for the end.’
The novel takes place in the 1920s, when over 150,000 German Russians arrived in America, many of them settling in the Dakotas and Montana. “Lila” tells of one woman’s journey of faith and family, commitment and duty. It’s Schick's fifth novel, but the first one that the Bigfork author has published.
“It’s a craft, and it takes a lot of time and skill,” she said.
Schick built “Lila” around character, rather than plot. This gives her freedom to explore the nuances of character and let characters develop as they may.
Lila, for instance, is a consummate baker and she’s known for her delicate pastries and breads. At one point she works at a bakery in Missoula for a couple, Franz and Martha. “Some characters just showed up,” Schick said. “I had no sense that Franz would show up, but I really liked him. You have to wait for characters to reveal themselves. They’re neat characters, and they’re fun.”
Schick's own father was a gifted story teller with only a fourth-grade education. From him she learned how a tale was spun, but also a sense of people and how they relate to each other.
Schick grew up in Missoula, and her family lived next to her father’s barber shop, where she would listen to the stories of the men. She remembers her father’s stories, his big hand gestures and the twinkle in his eyes when he told a story. “He found humor in everything,” she said.
Growing up in Missoula Schick's family home was near camping grounds that Native Americans used when they came to the valley to harvest bitterroots in the spring. Starting with these roots she got a sense of the human condition. That shows up in “Lila” with the myriad characters that flow in and out of Lila’s life.
Schick rarely asks a question in the book that she can’t answer. She knows where she’s headed, and that makes it enjoyable for the reader to follow where she’s taking you. But Schick doesn’t want to give you everything, and that’s clear in a book driven by character — not plot.
“I don’t want to have to tell the whole tale,” she said, “because we all have tales within us.”
Strong, independent women are core themes in Schick's stories. Within these themes there is a sense of opportunity, exploration and yes, suffering.
Schick has a master’s degree in linguistics and formerly owned a language-education business in Arizona that taught English as a second language.
When that business began to falter during the recession, she knew what she had to do.
“I knew I had to start writing,” she said. “It’s a real, holistic process.”
She moved to Bigfork in 2006 with her husband and now writes six days a week. “I’m very organized and very structured,” she said.
She has a series of short stories about women homesteaders in Montana — people who eked out a living in the frontier, alone. “What kind of woman would do that?” she said. “What would it take?”
Those are questions that Schick loves to explore on her own, through fictional characters.
One of the women in her short stories foregoes a successful life as a journalist to prove up 160 acres.
Like that frontier woman, Schick gets to write her future. “Those women had a hardiness to them, and they had guts,” she said. “They did the really hard thing.”
Stories and characters evolve, like life. Schick feels thankful to be part of the creative process watching characters grow and stories form.
“I just love story,” she said. “I’m so thankful for that.”