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Books

Review: ‘Holding Fire’

The recently published memoir is Bryce Andrews’s third book and has been nominated for the 2023 Reading the West Book Awards

By Maggie Doherty
Cover of “Holding Fire: A Reckoning with American West,” a book by Bryce Andrews.

Humans have worked with cows longer than they’ve practiced the centuries-old trade of blacksmithing. Still, the two pursuits have long been conjoined in the development of human civilizations across the globe, including in the European colonization of the American West. Raising cattle and forging metal with fire has inspire legend and folklore, continuing well into today’s time even with machinery trying to replace cowboys and smiths. There are holdouts, of course, and in the Flathead Valley a legacy of cattlemen and blacksmiths remains, as do storytellers, which Bryce Andrew captures in “Holding Fire: A Reckoning with the American West.” The recently published memoir is Andrews’s third book and has been nominated for the 2023 Reading the West Book Awards. 

Born in Seattle, Andrews dreamed of becoming a cowboy, especially after spending summers in Montana on his godparents’ ranch. In his early twenties, his dream became reality, and he worked on the renowned Sun Ranch in southwestern Montana’s Madison Valley and wrote about the experience in his first book, “Bad Luck Way.” Despite riding horseback through the mountains and tending to cattle, parts of his dream left him unfulfilled, aware that his desire to be a cowboy was intertwined with a complicated and violent history. “Having ridden the horse, carried my grandfather’s revolver, and stood as the tall unflinching white man in the panorama of American myths and dreams, I know something about what it means to ‘win the West.’ I want no further part in it,” he writes in “Holding Fire.” As the son of a black-and-white photographer, his newest book is a chronicle that details the thornier side of his lifelong quest to live in Montana, often shifting the lens between his personal history and that of America’s rampant conquest, bloodthirsty and profit hungry. 

The object that Andrews examines throughout the book is the gun, and in particular its role in the white settlement and colonization of America by Europeans, and how the weapon was used to displace and kill Indigenous and wildlife populations. The history of the firearm is also personal as Andrews is gifted his grandfather’s Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum. In elegant and honest prose, Andrews works toward stripping away myth from truth, many of which continue to plague the West as symbolized by the revolver: “All guns are made for killing, but a handgun chambered in .357 Magnum has a yet more specific purpose . . . Before that morning, I had never looked at my grandfather’s black-shining, beautiful revolver and told myself the simple truth: This thing I keep and carry is built for killing people.” 

Simple truths are few and far between, as many of us know, but this is especially true for the past 300 years or so in the American West. As a direct descendent of William Bradford who served as the Plymouth Colony’s governor for decades, Andrews is willing to take on the complicated truths about the colonization and settlement of the American nation. As a conservationist, Andrews also highlights the ecological devastation wrought on the lands, from water to natural resource damage. His story traces his efforts to restore traditional systems on his farm in the Jocko Valley with his wife and young family while determining what to do with his grandfather’s revolver. 

As a hunter and rancher, Andrews has employed a variety of guns but the .357 is different and the role in his life more complicated. As he writes, this is a story about searching deeper, unearthing the truths deeper than simple caricatures: “Back then, I had a simple understanding — as thin as ink on canvas or the play of light onscreen — of how a complete Westerner man might look, speak, and behave: He would be as tough as bull hide and good with horses, hardscrabble and skilled, competent and unflinching.” 

Not all Westerners are cowboys, and it’s not a cowboy or a rancher who helps Andrews decide what to do with his grandfather’s gun. Rather, it’s the Flathead Valley’s Jeffrey Funk, one of the world’s most famous blacksmiths who helps Andrews forge a new understanding of the revolver. The award-winning author shares the many lessons, both in metal work and in life, that Funk and his wife, Betsy, offer him at the setting of their New Agrarian School in Bigfork, as well as his many teachers, neighbors, and coworkers who point him to a great understanding of himself and his place in a vast landscape where grizzlies roam through his yard and he learns to build upon a chosen lineage, no longer haunted by the past.