Reviewed by Erica Ball
A meditation on the life and death of a lawless town in the waning days of the Wild West
Invitation to a Hanging is the story of Adam, a young man coming of age in the rapidly-declining town of Mondak, Montana. Adam is trying to find his way in this impoverished place while piecing together the story of his life through a diary he happens to find. As he does so, he is forced to take control of his own future and make massive changes in his life.
When his parents moved to Mondak early in the 19th century, it was a frontier boom town and a symbol of unlimited potential. Now, with both his parents long dead, the town is nothing more than a reminder of things that had been. People are moving away or dying, and businesses are closing. All that is left are those with no place else to go and the town bosses who oversaw its fall, presiding over a place with more dead than living.
When Adam’s mother Alta arrives, life in Mondak, though full of possibility, is also full of inebriation, violence, and crime. Into this lawless place is lured the naive Alta, a young and idealistic lady, seduced by the romance of a forbidden courtship with an ambitious young man named Stanley. Leaving behind her indulgent life for an adventure worthy of her favorite literary heroines, Alta has truly no idea where she will end up.
The town of Mondak almost fills the role of a character itself. The cruelty and greed of the town bosses leak into every aspect of life there. The meanest and most ruthless take control of everything, and anything else they want as well: land, lives, and the law. Anyone and everyone are seen as a threat or as someone to exploit for money for the town bosses. These are people who don’t treat anyone else as human, especially those of different genders, cultures, or skin tones.
The real ghost town of Mondak is portrayed in the book as doomed from the beginning; its core is already poisoned by the greed and ruthlessness of the people who founded it. Though it is well positioned at the North Dakota border, on the Missouri River, and on the Great Northern Railway line, its economy relies heavily on the seedier side of human nature: drinking, gambling, and prostitution. The main attractions on its main street are saloons and bars catering to the people living on the side of town across the state line, in North Dakota, where alcohol is prohibited. The only respite Alta finds is in the company of the other women of the town, who when together wield a force that makes the powers that be nervous.
The characters of Alta and Stanley are the driving forces of the story, as their story (and their son’s) result directly from their behaviors. Though in some ways they are characters readers may be already familiar with—the young naive lady and the dashing but greedy man who marries for money—the author does a deft job of breathing new life and complexity into them. Alta is sympathetic but flawed, at times weak and at times strong. Stanley on the other hand is an enigma for much of the story, the reader wondering exactly how he feels, what he wants, and what he is up to.
Despite the dark subject matter, the book is not a depressing read, with even the most difficult subject matter dealt with through beautiful turns of phrase. Peppered throughout are surprising moments of levity, humor, grace, and love that center on the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the characters.
The author does a stellar job of evoking the atmosphere of the Wild West and the forces at work in the country at large at that time. There are rumors of coming war and the upheaval that comes with train tracks being laid. There are remnants of forts and graveyards of soldiers and civilians. There’s reckoning with the ongoing unimaginable treatment of the people forcibly removed from their land when settlers moved in, and that is still going on with their incarceration in “hospitals” that are worse than prisons.
Some readers may find the coincidence on which the book rests—that Adam happens to find the diary—a bit of a stretch. But others may feel the author sets up the situation so that it makes sense within the story’s world. Adam finds it while following in his father’s footsteps, in a way, by working for the same man and visiting the same places.
Invitation to a Hanging is an artful portrait of a young man discovering the magic of self-determination. The people it depicts strive to carve a life out of whatever circumstances they might find themselves in. It is about quiet persistence in the face of greed and evil intentions, of choosing when to fight and when to walk away.
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