In describing the love of reading he developed in elementary school, the journalist and author Abe Streep recalled that his local library not only allowed him to pursue his existing interests, but the books he discovered there helped shape his understanding of the world as an adult.
The “Redwall” fantasy books by Brian Jacques, which featured woodland creatures in a medieval world, were mixed in with a slew of other books, many of them about the sports, teams and athletes that Streep admired.
“Books about Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Satchel Paige, the David Halberstam book about the Cardinals and the Yankees. Pretty much anything about the Yankees down to box scores,” Streep said, ticking through his self-imposed reading curriculum. “‘The Jordan Rules,’ Jim Bouton’s ‘Ball Four,’ Maury Wills’ autobiography, Shaquille O’Neal’s autobiography ‘Shaq Attaq!,’ written when he was in his early 20s. You can skip that one. ’Clemente,’ by David Maraniss.”
“What a book,” Streep continued. “I don’t really remember anything about it now except the feeling that it gave me. That sports can be a vessel for something larger, for history and for belief that lasts. The fact that Roberto Clemente was so focused on his community (is) a power I would see in a different way as an adult in Arlee, Montana, when the Arlee Warriors took the court. As a kid the world was big in those books and it was big in the local library where I lived, where I could walk around and get lost and follow my curiosity.”
Streep’s comments about libraries, journalism and the childlike curiosity that forms their nexus came during a fundraiser at the Bethany Lutheran Church Ark building in Bigfork, at an event called “Between the Wines,” which was hosted on Nov. 17 by the ImagineIF Library Foundation as part of ongoing efforts to finance a new library in Bigfork. To date, $821,916 has been raised. The goal is $1.6 million. Streep was the featured speaker at the event.
Originally from New York, Streep is now based out of New Mexico, but his work has brought him to Montana repeatedly over the years, including when he traveled to the Flathead Indian Reservation hub of Arlee to follow the Arlee Warriors, the high school basketball team that was simultaneously chasing the 2018 Class C basketball championship amid a cluster of community suicides.
As the team closed in on a title run in the face of those suicides, the Warriors tried to rally their community in what generally became known as the “Warrior Movement.” The book follows a wide range of parents, relatives, players and community members, with special attention paid to Warriors stars Will Mesteth Jr. and Phillip Malatare.
Streep’s print reporting on the Warriors became the basis for a book published in September 2021 called “Brothers on Three: A True Story of Family, Resistance, and Hope on a Reservation in Montana.” Among its accolades is the 2021 Montana Book Award.
“Brothers on Three” and its celebrated reception was part of the reason Streep was chosen to talk at the local fundraiser, where copies of his book were handed out. But Streep spent very little time focused on the book, instead acknowledging the complicated ground he stood on, both figuratively and literally, and expressing gratitude for the people of Arlee.
“The story of the Arlee Warriors is Arlee’s story. It is a story of family. Families shared the parts that I shared in my book and I did my best. Writing it has deepened and changed my understanding of this country and this place,” Streep said.
In an author’s note at the conclusion of the book, Streep elaborates on some of the uncertainty and doubt he faced as he considered the possibility of writing “Brothers on Three,” explaining that his account of the team’s 2017-18 season gave him a chance to watch “perhaps the most thrilling basketball team in the nation,” but that the world today might not have needed this story from “another white guy in Indian Country.”
“This ground had been trod before, and not always with good results,” Streep wrote. He also described worrying about how the book could affect its subjects, including the young men who opened up to share personal stories of vulnerable, sensitive moments in their lives.
“For me, curiosity is the heart of journalism, that and generosity. Because the world’s big, it’s messy, and the point of this thing I think is to embrace that complexity. To keep asking questions and let the world get bigger and more complicated. And go where the facts lead,” Streep said to attendees in Bigfork.
During his talk, Streep did offer a firm defense of how the book portrays college basketball recruiting in Montana. Portions of the book dedicated to understanding why some of the Warriors players, and other Native athletes in Montana, were not being more actively recruited by college basketball programs in the state.
“There are people who have said they did not like some of the reporting in ‘Brothers on Three,’ especially reporting around some of the issues regarding basketball recruitment in Montana. They have suggested I overemphasized the impact of discrimination against Native athletes. I thank them for their input. And I respectfully and strongly disagree. Because I was there, and what happened, happened,” Streep said.
Streep also spent some of his time during the Bigfork event defending the importance of libraries.
“I think when people try to attack libraries it’s because they recognize their power,” he said. “Stories are powerful and libraries are a home for them. Ideas that challenge your certainty can be amazing. To some they can be terrifying. So, of course it can be difficult. But I think that when things get difficult you can learn a lot about who you are and what you are capable of.”
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