sckenda's Reviews > Montana 1948

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson
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Jun 27, 14

bookshelves: friend-recommendations, fathers-and-sons, montana, prairie, family, milkweed-national-fiction-prize, fate, native-americans
Recommended to sckenda by: Richard Derus
Recommended for: Those hoping to escape the burden of family or fate
Read from May 07 to 08, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1

"I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." (Exodus 20:5)

"The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son." (Ezekiel 18:20)


Does your father’s character predetermine your own? Can you escape the destiny that your family history has seemingly preordained? This story chronicles the struggle for a boy’s soul. From the distance of time, a 52-year-old man remembers the boy he was at 12. His memory of 1948 consists of a series of images: a Sioux woman lying desperately ill at his house; his father begging his mother for help; and his mother racking a shell into the chamber of a shotgun. Along with the "sound of breaking glass" and "the smell of rotting vegetables," there is a tone of menace from the opening that kept me, with lead in my stomach, burning through its 160 pages over the course of two sittings. I needed to know. What’s mom doing with that shotgun? Why is dad begging mom? What does the Sioux woman have to do with any of this? While giving us some answers to these questions, David Hayden will reconstruct “the trail that led him out of his childhood.”

The writing style is understated and unaffected in a way that reflects the sparse landscape in which this story is set. The first-person narrator, David Hayden, lives in Mercer County, Montana, in 1948. Mercer County lies hidden away up in the far north-eastern corner of Montana, and the county is schizophrenically divided between the flat plains of its west and the gully-rivened ravines of its east. Mercer County is a limitless sea of grass, all of it treeless and wind-lashed. “If the land had its way, nothing would grow taller than sagebrush and buffalo grass.” The weather scorches this land in summer and freezes it in winter, and this very harshness has a way of annealing its people.

Wes Hayden, David’s father, is a disappointment to his wife, his father, his son, and himself. Wes is a sheriff in the post-war world. Like Jem in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” David is dismissive of his father whose job, he imagines, “did not require great strength or courage.” Worse, Wes wears brogans and a fedora rather than boots and a Stetson, and he doesn’t even carry a gun. Like Atticus Finch, Wes is self-effacing and lives in the shadow of an older brother, Frank, a charming war hero and local doctor.

Wes, Frank, and David are the scions of the Hayden family, which is the closest thing to aristocracy in Mercer County. The patriarch of the Hayden family is Grandfather Hayden, the former sheriff,“a dominating man who drew sustenance and strength from controlling others.” Grandfather never resists an opportunity to browbeat others with his opinions, and somehow, despite his long career as sheriff, he has managed to become one of the richest men in the county. Grandfather,like Joseph Kennedy, now expects Wes to carry on the tradition of power.

Again, like Atticus, Wes will experience a conflict between dueling duties. Will Wes be loyal to his family or loyal to the law? Despite his passivity, he does think about whether he will be able to look at himself in the mirror. He also wonders what his son will think of him. He needs a cup to pass from him. Who will deliver him from evil?

Also, like in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” there is the undercurrent of racism. Native Americans are subjects of “patronizing and debilitating prejudice.” Wes himself is a gentle bigot: he thinks Native Americans are lazy, ignorant, and irresponsible. It’s not that all the whites in Montana are cruel haters, it’s just that they don’t ever seem to notice the people who cook their meals and wait on them in the stores. They never pause to consider what dreams the indigenous ones may hold.

We do know what David’s mom thinks of her husband, early on in this novel, and it does not look promising for Wes. She thinks that Wes, who has a law degree, should escape Montana and grandfather to become his own man as an attorney in Minneapolis. But mom is holding something else back. She thinks that she has discovered and understands the evil at the heart of the Hayden family. Of course, she did not need evidence because she lived by faith and feelings. But she also knows in her soul that she has not yet become the woman that she once dreamed of being as a girl, when she smelled dirt in the pure wind of North Dakota. Whatever her failings, she knows that she must find the strength to battle for her son’s soul.

Now, we return back to the questions that I asked at the opening of this review. Must the sins of the father become those of the son? Can we escape the morality that genetics and/or the environment determine to stamp upon us. Larry Watson, I believe, attempts to ask this question but may not attempt to answer it without ambiguity. It seems to me that the success or failure will be a near-run thing. Success involves escape, and escape might cost you all you own. In fact, you might be better off running away with only the clothes on your back. Whatever you do, don't let the family squeeze you into its mold-- unless of course, you want to be preformed jello. Like those seemingly contradictory Bible passages at the beginning of this review (God judges the children; God doesn’t judge the children), I say, “Take your pick. It’s up to you.” But whatever you do, “Don’t blame Montana for your success or your failure. Don't ever blame Montana."

May 9, 2012
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Reading Progress

05/07/2012 "This book was of monumental importance to my friend, Richard. So in solidarity with him and for my own benefit, I will sit at the feet of Larry Watson for a few days." 4 comments
05/08/2012
100.0% 4 comments

Comments (showing 1-50 of 57) (57 new)


Marionette Loved this book. I had forgotten about this little gem!


sckenda Thanks Marionette. I see that you gave it 5 stars, I am really like its lean prose.


Marionette Steve wrote: "Thanks Marionette. I see that you gave it 5 stars, I am really like its lean prose."


Hi Steve. It's been a long time since I've read it but it really impressed me because it was such a haunting story. The characters were like people you might know in any small town. I love your description of it's "lean prose". That's perfect!


sckenda Marionette wrote: I love your description of it's lean prose.."
Yes, sparse as the bleak Montana prairie but hauntingly beautiful. I am 20 pages from finishing and hope to publish a review in a few days. Thanks for you encouragement.


message 5: by Nilesh (new)

Nilesh Kashyap Very nicely written review Steve!
In fact, your review has got me interested in this book, and comparision to 'To Kill a Mockingbird' over and over, Oh! I just want read this, not soon, but will read this for sure.


Jeffrey Keeten I made friends with this kid Rick when I was about ten. My mom freaked out. She said did you know his grandfather was in jail, and his daddy has been in trouble too. I replied "no I didn't know that, but what does that have to do with Rick". My mom then explained about the apple not falling far from the tree. I was even more interested in hanging out with Rick.

I fell head over heels with this girl named Stephanie in 6th grade. When my mom finds out she says, "you know she's catholic?" I thought to myself it doesn't change the fact that she has BIG BROWN eyes.

Your review reminded me of my conflicts with my mother over passing judgement on people. I still have conversations with her where I say "oh mom".

Great review of a great book. You did it Justice.


message 7: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim Outstanding review, Steve. Sounds like my kind of book...

Not having read it, I would say that I agree with much of your concluding paragraph. We do have a say in our own personal outcomes (though that statement is intensely controversial in some quarters). And responsibility comes with that. Genes are not fate, but they do influence outcomes, and of course the home environment is a huge factor as well.

But for me, the sneaky X factor is the passing of judgment that all humans do. Jeff's examples are great - Of course BIG BROWN eyes outweigh all other factors, mom!

But the easy prejudice is a defining trait of human brain function, and it simplifies our decisions but narrows all of our perspectives. With that said, we can train ourselves to leave a lot of that baggage behind, and that is a noble cause.


message 8: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie This book could have been written by someone I know, or me. I was raised in a small town fairly close to the Montana border - ranches to the west, farm country to the east - and a large reserve not far off. (my best friend in high school was from the reserve and she is about as opposite as one can get from being lazy, ignorant, and irresponsible). The description in the book of Mercer County is so familiar to me,
plains, flat as a tabletop on its western edge and riven with gullies, ravines, and low rocky hills to the east because of the work the Knife River has done over the centuries. The only trees that grow in that part of the country, aside from a few cottonwoods along the riverbank, have been planted by farmers and town dwellers.



message 9: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark excellent review Steve. After Richard's great review you have succeeded in driving this book ever closer to the top of the TBR pile.


message 10: by sckenda (last edited May 09, 2012 11:36AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

sckenda Nilesh wrote: "Very nicely written review Steve!
In fact, your review has got me interested in this book, and comparision to 'To Kill a Mockingbird' over and over, Oh! I just want read this, not soon, but will re..."


Thanks, Nilesh. I don't want to mislead. The book is different from To Kill a Mockingbird and certainly not derivative. That's just the way I filtered it. I was struck by the parallels, but the story stands on its own and has its own strong voice.


sckenda B0nnie wrote: "This book could have been written by someone I know, or me. I was raised in a small town fairly close to the Montana border - ranches to the west, farm country to the east - and a large reserve not..."

Thanks Bonnie. I thought of you because I remember about you telling me about your connection to the land in my review of Badlands.


sckenda Jim wrote: Genes are not fate...controversial in science community"

Thanks, Jim. "Ok, I'm with you fellers..." I believe in the scientific method with all my heart. I side wherever science leads. But even though genes may be determinative, I think its Biology 101 that there are dominant and recessive genes. In my uninformed, very humble opinion, I would imagine that even if genetics do control our capacity for moral reasoning, most of us do not know exactly where we stand. Therefore, we should act as if we had control (even if we don't) or we guarantee that our fate will out. I don't know... just random musings, prompted by your thoughtful post. Thanks for stopping by.


sckenda Jeffrey wrote: "you know she's catholic "no I didn't know t..."

Thanks, Jeffrey. Your mother was a wise woman. I say this as a Catholic. You need to watch out for those girls-- especially the ones with big browns. No, I know what you mean. On television, bigots are usually mean and unlikeable. It's usually more complicated than that. IMHO, we are all biased (in favor of) or prejudiced (against) individuals and groups to some degree based on tribal thinking. It's the human condition. Best to acknowledge it and engineer a way around it by constantly remembering to use logic.


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "you know she's catholic "no I didn't know t..."

Thanks, Jeffrey. Your mother was a wise woman. I say this as a Catholic. You need to watch out for those girls-- especially the o..."


My mother is Methodist. My wife is Episcopalian which I like to tell my mom, when I'm feeling ornery, that they are just "want to be Catholics". My father-in-law is a ex-Baptist Texas minister and he likes to drop gems on me like "you know the Mormons are going to hell". Really Sam I didn't know that. I have had a good laugh watching him squirm on the Romney issue(OMG HE IS A MORMON) because the other guy is well... BLACK. Half black I say with the other half being lily white KANSAN. That generation especially is so trapped by their own prejudices.

I'm reading this book by Ballard called High-Risewhich is focusing on tribal thinking. It is really Lord of the Flies with adults instead of kids. I'm not sure Ballard is going to pull this off. I'm 2/3rds done and skeptical.


message 15: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim Steve wrote: "Jim wrote: Genes are not fate...controversial in science community"

Thanks, Jim. "Ok, I'm with you fellers..." I believe in the scientific method with all my heart. I side wherever science leads..."


Actually, I mashed a couple of concepts together in my comment, and neglected to name the second one - Free Will (that is the controversial one). Let's see if I can separate the concepts a little better in the context of this discussion.

I think it is clear that genes are not nearly as deterministic for behavior of an individual, or many other traits, as they were once thought to be. New tools like microarrays ('gene chips') show that gene expression is altered by all kinds of factors - environment, other genes, etc. The term 'epigenetics' covers a lot of these findings.

So, your dad's and/or mom's genes do not determine your behavior. And besides, you got 50% from each, and the mix you got was more or less random.

But what IS pretty strongly determined is the basic wiring diagram of the human brain. Not the local details of individual memories, but the way the different systems and levels are connected and interact.

So, the basic emotional responses - anger, fear, love, hate, etc. - are set up to work similarly in all 'normal' humans (psychoses are generally aberrations in the basic functions). We all have models of the world in our heads, and those models are coded for good, bad, suspicious etc.

Bottom line - bias and prejudice are automatic outcomes of the basic wiring diagram. They work for us - we can make a lot of decisions in real time without having to think things through. But they also narrow our perspectives, sometimes in harmful ways. Like rejecting the 'others', which (I think) is what a lot of this book is about.

Our only defense against these biases is exactly what you said to Jeffrey:

"It's the human condition. Best to acknowledge it and engineer a way around it by constantly remembering to use logic."

There now. Did that clear things up, or just muddy the water even more? (we can talk about Free Will another time - a real rat's nest, that one)


sckenda Jim wrote: New tools like microarrays ('gene chips') show that gene expression is altered by all kinds of factors - environment, other genes, etc. The term 'epigenetics' covers a lot of these findings.
."


I love it Jim. When we became friends I was really hoping you would share some of this information in your comments and in your reviews. I see three tectonic shifts on the horizon: 1) realignment of the world order (developing nations up, etc.); 2) the new digital media and the effect on the way we get our information; and 3) the amazing leaps in science, especially biotech. I welcome any opportunity to learn your thoughts on any issue, but I recognize your special expertise in science and medicine. I like the way you simplified the concept by comparing bias and prejudice to basic wiring diagram. If it is clear as mud, it is either my fault or it could be that the world is still infinitely complicated and thus is deserving of a complex answer. Thanks for taking your time to weigh in on my review!!!!!


message 17: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim Steve wrote: "I like the way you simplified the concept by comparing bias and prejudice to basic wiring diagram. If it is clear as mud, it is either my fault or it could be that the world is still infinitely complicated and thus is deserving of a complex answer. Thanks for taking your time to weigh in on my review!!!!!"

You are most welcome, Steve! I can blather endlessly about science; I just don't want to chase any of your other friends away...

I do agree with your notion of the 3 tectonic shifts. As a cautionary note from a science perspective, I would say that resource limitations and environmental degradation will be major factors in the evolving world order. We will need to be extremely clever about how and when we apply science (and a lot more common sense) as these challenges are faced. I keep coming back to those issues in my reading and thinking.

One more thought for now. The way the brain is organized and has evolved has a huge effect on how we look at people and events. I mentioned a few elements of that in the earlier comments, but will be happy to say more in other discussions.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Well done. An excellent piece of writing. A review to be proud of.


sckenda Richard wrote: "Well done. An excellent piece of writing. A review to be proud of."

Oh thank goodness. I was really worried that I had screwed up a review of a book that is dear to you. You had me worried.


sckenda Richard wrote: "Why?"

Howling Fantods!:) Well, last night you appeared to be waiting with bated breath for the review, but then, today, silence... which I, lacking all self-worth and self-confidence, interpreted as condemnation. See, I have my own family baggage to escape.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways OMG Really?!

Sweetienubbins distracted me for a chunk of today. It is odd to help one's bedmate with his homework. His English prof is, in my humble opinion, the worst sort of crap teacher imaginable, asking for a CATHOLIC take on Flowers for Algernon's narrator's journey. Ethical? Unethical? These I could see asking. But a Catholic take?! WTF?

We hashed that through for a good while. He took my advice and used ethical/unethical and explored the idea of informed consent. (He's in the Catholic school's medical technology program, they have to take ethics courses.) I spent the consultancy time writing my reviews of several books and only just searched this one up.

No. I didn't hate your review. I liked it. I think you got a big piece of the meat of the book and served it up right.


Jeffrey Keeten When I grow up I hope to write reviews as well as Steve does. Fingers crossed.


message 24: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris Beautifully written review! I don't know how I managed to miss this book, especially since I am interested in the themes of individual versus family. Are we predisposed to repeat past sins of our families? Are we implicated in them? I sometimes teach a course on History of the Family, and my favorite part was assigning readings from family memories and histories that often addressed these questions of identity and responsibility. I just downloaded Montana 1948 - I'm very interested in reading Watson's take on these questions. Thanks so much again!


message 25: by Stephen (new)

Stephen What a terrific review, Steve. I had not heard of this before, but your review has me putting it on the must read soon list. Thank you for this.


sckenda Richard wrote: "OMG Really?! Sweetienubbins distracted me for a chunk of today."

Imagine my relief. I exaggerate, of course, but I did feel a certain responsibility with this book. I have special books, which I recommend, which I buy for others... of course, nobody ever reads them...let alone review them, but who knows? Sweetienubbins better appreciate you. You helping him with a writing assignment is like having Stephen Hawking help with Physics 101 homework. I wish you could have helped me with my writing today at work. I finished this this massive brief that was due today, so I have been doing nothing but writing (at work and or on GR) for nearly the last 72 hours. Here I am still writing now, but you are worth it. OK I can sleep peacefully now knowing that I took Monatana 1948 and served it up right.


sckenda Jeffrey wrote: "When I grow up I hope to write reviews as well as Steve does. Fingers crossed."

Well, I'm just plagiarizing you, my friend. Have you written so many reviews that you have failed to notice?


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Oh goddesses BRIEF WRITING ew ew Satan save me.

Looking over the sea of comments, I note there is nothing in the minus column...and while I myownself am just blowing smoke up your chimney and saying I like it when in fact I hate it, it would seem that many others disagree with me.

Oh dear...did I say that out loud...uh oh


sckenda Kris wrote: "Beautifully written review! I don't know how I managed to miss this book, especially since I am interested in the themes of individual versus family. Are we predisposed to repeat past sins of our f..."

Kris, thank you so much. You are living my dream. If I could go back and do it all over, I would find a way to teach books. I would illuminate rather than litigate. Perhaps, one of these days you will send me a syllabus for one of your courses. We should sit at your feet and learn.


sckenda Stephen wrote: "What a terrific review, Steve. I had not heard of this before, but your review has me putting it on the must read soon list. Thank you for this."

Jeffrey, you are prodigious. When the number #1 ranked reviewer in the world stops in on one of my reviews to say hello, I have something to crow about. Thanks so much.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Steve wrote: "Richard wrote: "Oh goddesses BRIEF WRITING ew ew Satan save me.

Looking over the sea of comments, I note there is nothing in the minus column...and while I myownself am just blowing smoke up your ..."


*evil Muttley laugh*

My work here is done....

(ps why did you call Stephen "Jeffrey" in #31? Do you need sleep that badly?)


sckenda Steve wrote: "Stephen wrote: "What a terrific review, Steve. I had not heard of this before, but your review has me putting it on the must read soon list. Thank you for this."

Stephen, you are prodigious. Sorry, Stephen (and Jeffrey) I really screwed that one up. I have a mental block with my own name.



sckenda Richard wrote: "Steve wrote: "Richard wrote: "Oh goddesses BRIEF WRITING ew ew Satan save me.

Looking over the sea of comments, I note there is nothing in the minus column...and while I myownself am just blowing ..."


see ya in hell!


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Heh...no doubt. I'll be in the cigars-and-single-malts corner.


message 35: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark gosh all this encouraging and re.assuring. i wonder if i should lose all hope., my comment being the only one you didn't acknowledge lol


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "When I grow up I hope to write reviews as well as Steve does. Fingers crossed."

Well, I'm just plagiarizing you, my friend. Have you written so many reviews that you have failed t..."


If I have had any positive influence on your review writing I am very pleased. Keep reading and keep sharing your thoughts with us.


message 37: by Mark (last edited Sep 19, 2012 09:51AM) (new) - added it

Mark btw. after you ignored comment 37 i shall still speak to you and tell you that as a result of your review and Richard's I downloaded aforesaid book onto my kindle and am taking it on my hols next week


sckenda Mark wrote: "btw. after you ignored comment 37 i shall still speak to you and tell you that as a result of your review and Richard's I downloaded aforesaid book onto my kindle and am taking it on my hols next week"

Mark. my dear. It is 9-22-2012. I have only just know seen #39; #37; #9. I have no idea how I missed all three of your messages. No explanation whatsoever. I think I shall blame it on a gr glitchy gremlin. None of your notices caused my little g to light up. The rest was oversight. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, and to wait so patiently for a simple courtesy of an answer, which, I assure you I would have done had I seen them. I am so very sorry. THank you for continuing to speak to me and to like my other reviews and to encourage me. I am baffled by this, and I appreciate your persistence. Next time, please message me because I am horrified to discover I have neglected one of my first gr friends and a valued ally in the UK.


sckenda Mark wrote: "btw. after you ignored comment 37 i shall still speak to you and tell you that as a result of your review and Richard's I downloaded aforesaid book onto my kindle and am taking it on my hols next week"

Oh and for this crime, I also want to assure you that the first 3 pints will be on me to atone for this oversight when I find you in the UK. Cheers until then.


message 40: by Steve (new)

Steve Another great review, Steve. I can see what you mean in your comparisons with To Kill a Mockingbird. You got me to thinking, though, how implausible it was that Atticus Finch ended up being the principled hero. A lawyer?! Come on. [Insert sufficient winkies for Steve to know that I really am kidding. Besides, those of us working in finance aren't allowed to cast stones.]


sckenda Steve wrote: "Another great review, Steve. I can see what you mean in your comparisons with To Kill a Mockingbird. You got me to thinking, though, how implausible it was that Atticus Finch ended up being the p..."

Steve, I am so sorry I did not see your kind comment sooner. I apologize, but i thank you for those very kind words. I did not know that you work in finance. Wall Street? or Local Bank? Can you get me a job with you fellas? :)


message 42: by Steve (new)

Steve Yes, Steve, I work for a small market-making firm in Chicago, a hotbed for such things. Fortunately, when we're not occupied with price manipulation and picking off small investors, we like to help little old ladies cross the street. :-)

You must think I truly have it in for lawyers. I really don't -- only a the ones who deserve it. ;-)


sckenda Steve wrote: "Yes, Steve, I work for a small market-making firm in Chicago, a hotbed for such things. Fortunately, when we're not occupied with price manipulation and picking off small investors, we like to hel..."

Thanks, Steve. I am glad you are there. I think readers make better human beings and our numbers should be sprinkled liberally throughout finance, law, medicine, government, politics, etc. I am glad you are there. In my practice, I represent a number of banks and credit unions, so I get where you are coming from. :)


message 44: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Great review. Personally, I think everyone has to or should distinguish him/her self from his/her family. Both nature and nurture may be over stated. I believe that luck can be very important .
Children of 5 or 8 (Scout and Jem) can't really judge. They can only know Atticus. Later on , at 14 or so kids , have lost their "sight" and then they judge everything and everyone.


sckenda Suzanne wrote: "Great review. Personally, I think everyone has to or should distinguish him/her self from his/her family. Both nature and nurture may be over stated. I believe that luck can be very important .
C..."


Hi Suzanne. I certainly agree with you about the need to create our own space between ourselves and our family (genes and environment). Luck is a huge factor, often most underestimated by the luckiest. Funny how we keep meeting over To Kill a Mockingbird. That book could launch a thousand conversations.


message 46: by Lynne (last edited Feb 16, 2014 09:53AM) (new) - added it

Lynne King Steve, What an absolutely stunning review. I don't know this book or this author at all but I'm definitely going to be reading this shortly.

I feel that the book is right for me. Call it intuition or whatever but you've certainly got me galvanized. I woke up this morning as a tortoise and I'm now a cheetah!

Bravo!


sckenda Lynne wrote: "Steve, What an absolutely stunning review. I don't know this book or this author at all but I'm definitely going to be reading this shortly.

I feel that the book is right for me. Call it intuitio..."


Lynne thank you so much. I have learned never to disregard the role of serendipity in our lives. I have found some of my favorite books this way. I hope your intuition is rewarded. Thanks for letting me know.


message 48: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King Steve Sckenda wrote: "Lynne wrote: "Steve, What an absolutely stunning review. I don't know this book or this author at all but I'm definitely going to be reading this shortly.

I feel that the book is right for me. Ca..."


I've ordered the book through Amazon (I know that everyone hates this company but I don't have a nearby book shop here in France and it is a very highly efficient company - I order a book and it arrives free of charge within a few days - I'm very happy with it) and it should arrive shortly.

Thank you again Steve for your super review.


Algernon I only skimmed your review when I first noticed it, butI want to thank you for bringing the book to my attention. I read it now, and I loved it. I got the same impression of connections with Haper Lee's classic, even if David is older and Wesley, his dad, is less clear cut in his integrity and struggles to reconcile family with the letter of the law.


message 50: by Arah-Lynda (new) - added it

Arah-Lynda A beautiful review of a book I very much want to read. Thank you Steve.


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