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Swift Dam

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It had been a long snowy winter and spring. The rivers were late rising, and the mountains held onto a pure white snow-cover. Rain fell upon the deep winter snow the day before the Flood of '64. Waters rose, the rivers raged. The dam failed to hold the Birch Creek flow, and broke, giving way to a wall of water and drowning the Indians.

​Veterinarian Alphonse Vallerone dreams out this novel of dreamers dreaming. He goes back 50 years to the day after the Flood, when he assisted the surviving Indians. Riding from one devastated ranch to another, he tends to the surviving yet devastated animals and tries to mend the grief wrought by the Flood.

Underpinned by the lingering and harsh reminders of the Blackfeet Nation’s heroic, tragic, and vibrant past, Gustafson’s third novel chronicles the heartrending drama of the Blackfeet people.

Swift Dam celebrates the native land and the Natives who survive as they have survived throughout time, perilously. It is the story of a veterinarian who attempts to sustain and nurture life on the land, his empathy with the living, and his sympathy for the dead and dying.

Swift Dam reviewed by Ed Kemmick of Last Best News

"Swift Dam," the new novel by veterinarian and writer Sid Gustafson, is a beautifully evocative exploration of memory and landscape, history and generational relationships.

Sid knows the land intimately. He said his father used to take his sons, on horseback, into the wilderness beyond the dam, and for three years after the flood, until a new dam was built, they would ride through the wasteland scoured by the floodwaters, then through the cleft where the dam had stood.

In the novel, Vallerone recalls spending days riding along Birch Creek after the flood, taking care of animals that survived, looking for bodies and tending to the people who lived through the disaster.

Rib did that, too, Sid said, but there the facts end and the fiction kicks in. The mystery springs from what Vallerone discovered in the wake of the great flood, and what he goes back to find 50 years to the day after the disaster.

There is very little straight detective work on the part of the sheriff, just the piecing together of history, rumor and recollection. There is also the mystery of Vallerone’s black bag, which he always carries into the hills, and around which speculation swirls.

The guts of the book are the ruminations of Oberly and Vallerone on life, love and mortality. Vallerone, apparently subject to some kind of sleep disorder, has trouble keeping his dreams separate from real life, or disentangling real history from myth and misremembrance.

The point seems to be that we all are disordered when we try to reconstruct the past, that we all live to some extent in a waking dream.

The book is also full of veterinary particulars, which might sound dry but are anything but. Vallerone is an old-fashioned healer who does much of his diagnosis and doctoring with his hands—hence the nickname “Fingers”—and who is a proponent of the Blackfeet way of raising and caring for horses.

Sid, who in his own practice specializes in the care of thoroughbred race horses, goes into loving detail about the proper care of livestock, and he takes several detours to damn the damage done to animals by modern ranching techniques and the scourge of using drugs to treat every ailment.

Sid writes of veterinary medicine, and much else, with a poetic voluptuousness, as in this description of the aftermath of a cesarean birth: “The new mother heaves a sigh of relief as the calf exits her incised womb. Doc elevates the calf to drain her wet lungs, and lays the neonate out and revives the baby, too long inside. He clamps her umbilicus to make her inhale, and inhale the little creature does, taking in first air, continuing to inhale, gestating nine months to inhale. Fingers threads his needle with catgut suture and the newborn sits to her sternum and issues a faint bawl. He stitches the mother back together, the newborn flapping her ears, stars singing hallelujah.”

Sid also knows the Blackfeet, whom he grew up around up on the family ranch. He writes of Blackfeet past and present with a clear understanding of the indignities they have suffered, but also with an unsentimental appreciation of what they might teach those who care to listen.


Published April 1, 2016

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About the author

Sid Gustafson

17 books
Sid Gustafson, novelist, veterinarian, equine behaviorist. Sid Gustafson lives in Bozeman, Montana with his children Connor and Nina where he writes, teaches, and practices his natural approach to equine veterinary medicine up and down the Rocky Mountain Front Range.
Sid was born in Montana, as were his children and parents. He grew up in the shadow of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and frequently travels to New York and California, where he represents the health and welfare of racehorses. "

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5 stars
13 (72%)
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3 (16%)
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1 (5%)
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Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews
Profile Image for Simon Campbell.
Author 1 book29 followers
February 5, 2017
Sid Gustafson’s spiritual journey deep into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of the past is a lyrical meditation on man and nature, time and memory and life and death (and life after death, both the supernatural and the natural, in man and in beast). This modern-day folktale is told from the interwoven perspectives of two men whose past and future bend around each other like the rivers and mountains of the landscape they inhabit, one coming to the end of his journey (one last vision quest) and the other just beginning to find his way. This is an evocative, sometimes haunting and always beautifully written novel, a timeless and wistful fable of the washing away of the old to make way for the new in common with another well-known flood story. Gustafson is an excellent writer and an excellent storyteller (and it’s an increasingly rare treat to find both skills on display in the same novel) who slowly draws you into the lives of his characters and the country they share a deep bond with. Highly recommended.
4 reviews1 follower
March 18, 2017
Sid Gustafson's _Swift Dam_ punches above its weight class: written by a practicing veterinarian, it reads like the work of a celebrated Iowa Writer's Workshop prodigy, and clocking in at only 150 pages, little more than a long novella, it takes its reader into a fully flushed out imagination of a very real event. Amidst its surface tale of the broken Swift Dam flood of 1964, it interweaves three distinct stories.

First, it puts forward a cautionary tale, warning us not to put too much faith in modernity's bold technological breakthroughs, for the water may indeed break through them, leaving us in the devastating ruins of a failed modernity. Like Walter Benjamin's vision of the Angel of progress as a series of train wrecks piling on top of each other, Gustafson shows us the dark, underbelly of modernity, suggesting forcefully that the Swift dam was not the first dam to fail, nor will it be the last. We need to stop seeing modern technology--again portrayed in the novel as the excessive use of chemicals to treat animals--as an infallable panacea, and become more cautious of its risks and dangers. As the bumper sticker says, "Nature Bats Last."

The larger second story is the tragic demise of the Blackfeet people, their lives, their property, and their hopes which were washed downstream, living below the dam. Here the story is less about the failure of modern technology per se, and more about the devastating losses caused by modernity's failure. Gustafson shows us how yet again Native Americans have born the brunt of a failed notion of Manifest Destiny which has repeatedly damaged Native people through military violence, infectious diseases, broken treaties, and now breached dams.

Gustafson's third narrative, however, is perhaps his most subtle and most fully realized. Told through the eyes of an old school veterinarian who eschews the excessive use of drugs, Gustafson weaves a tale about our alienation from the land and the animals who live on it. So in addition to telling a narrative about modernity's tragic failures, Gustafson also offers a ray of hope, depicting a world in which--through animal husbandry/midwifery and Native traditions and perspectives, we might reconnect to our lands and the animals who populate them.

This quick, but delightful, read restores faith in the old ways of the past as a cure for a world alienated by too much technology and an insufficient connection to Native lands and peoples.
Profile Image for Steven Howes.
533 reviews
February 27, 2017
I have read many good books over the years. However every once in a while I come across one that seems to rise above the rest and "Swift Dam" is one of those books. Although a relatively short book (listed as 160 pages), it is a complex, interesting, and compelling story. Perhaps I am a bit biased; but it contains many of the elements I find important in a good read. These include a strong sense of place and the connection between humans, the land, animals, and one another. It is set in and around the Blackfeet Indian Reservation south of Browning, Montana.

The story involves the mysterious, nocturnal wanderings of country veterinarian Dr. Alphonse "Fingers" Valerone and his connection to the failure of Swift Dam during catastrophic flooding of 1964. Although an outsider, Fingers develops close relationships with the Blackfeet Indians and learns many things from them that help him in his veterinary practice. He also learns that water can bring both life and death and is impossible to control. Sometimes, the old ways may be better in the long-term and perhaps the spirits can lead us in the right direction if we are open to hearing them.

This book reminded me to a degree of some of the works of Ivan Doig, one of my favorite authors. The setting is the same as a number of Doig's novels and the ending is both unexpected and heart-warming.

432 reviews
August 25, 2016
I received this ebook free from the publisher through LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. This is a wonderful story about life in Blackfeet country Montana and the memories and aftermath of a great flood in spring of 1964 that tragically wiped out a large Blackfeet community. The author tells of the life and work of a country veterinarian and a country sheriff, their interactions and relationships, and how their lives are still affected by the great flood of 50 years ago. Sid Gustafson is a great storyteller. This isn’t a thriller or mystery just good down to earth fiction about real people like you and me and their life experiences. The author is a very descriptive and colorful writer. I love the way the author tells a story and look forward to reading more books by Sid Gustafson.
Profile Image for The Brown Bookloft.
496 reviews7 followers
August 29, 2019
Summary: The worst flood in Montana’s history occurred in 1964, when the Swift Dam broke after being inundated with rain and snow. Thirty-one lives were lost, all but one on the Blackfeet Reservation. (1)

Using this fact as background, plus his own knowledge and experience of that area, the author gives us a story that ties the past and present together through two men. One of the men is an elderly veterinarian. He uses his hands and deep knowledge to train animals, particularly horses, and heals those who are sick or injured. He eschews the modern ways of diagnosis through tests and technology. He listens deeply to the land and native peoples and wanders the hills above the dam like he is an integral part of his environment. The other man is the sheriff. Despite being half Native American, his mother sent him to live among the whites as a child. His background makes him uniquely qualified to be sheriff, although he would happily give up the job and go live on a ranch with his wife and unborn child.

The veterinarian has a decades long habit of disappearing for days. Yet on this particular occasion, his youngest son wants the sheriff to go find him. The son is sure his father is sick or dead. His father was frequently seen leaving the house with a mysterious black bag. The son desperately wants to know why the old veterinarian is doing this and what it means. The sheriff doesn’t panic, but takes his time to mull over what he knows about his old friend. The conclusions and truths that he reaches will profoundly change his life.

Comments: In Swift Dam, the author builds a rhythmic, thematic story of the importance of the natural world and of family ties. The tale pulled me deeply into the flow of water and time. I felt my heartbeat slowing, my tension easing. Having spent my life in suburbs and cities, I am not usually at ease in nature. There is too much danger that I am not equipped to handle, as my body’s allergies and imbalances in the great outdoors threaten to topple me into instability. But reading this novel made me feel like I was part of that land, even if for just a little while. For that, I am thankful.

Recommended for readers of Literary Fiction and Historical Fiction

My rating: 4.5 STARS

(1). Great Falls Tribune: 1964 flood: Worst flood in Montana’s history left death, destruction
Profile Image for Sarah.
431 reviews
April 5, 2021
What a beautiful story. It took me a while to get into the flow, but once I did I couldn't put it down. I like that the dam and Montana were both characters in their own right. I wasn't sure about the number of viewpoints, but in the end I was grateful to have glimpses into those character's lives and thinking.
Profile Image for Sid Gustafson.
Author 17 books
August 26, 2016

I am the novelist who wrote Swift Dam. Certain readers like to hear from the writer, so this review is for you. I am uncertain of the etiquette here, but to me it is appropriate to provide an afterword in this forum. I did read the novel after its publication after several months of laborious but rewarding revisions. The words now appear in their best possible, it seems to me. As a writer reading his own work, I am satisfied with the story's published version. This view could change with time.

I became witness to the Flood of '64 as a nine-year-old living near the tragedy. My father, Rib, a veterinarian and horseman, was called to help with his horses to scour the ravaged Birch Creek river valley in search of survivors, the seed of this novel. The river was hard to reach, their search curtailed. The only actual events in this novel are the breach of the original, earthfill Swift Dam by water in 1964, the ensuing drownings, and the digression regarding the horse named Spokane.

At this time, I see my third novel, Swift Dam, as an entertaining, educational, and textured allegory regarding the complex and evolving relationship between mankind, nature, water, and animals. As the author, I am honored and pleased with my publisher, Open Books, the editors David Ross and Kelly Huddleston, the outcome, the reviews, and the sales. A world unknown to many is revealed in my best cinematic literary fashion; Swift Dam is a poem, a story, a metafiction; an allegory, a plea, a eulogy. It is dedicated to victims of the Flood of 1964.

Thank you all.
Best wishes, Sid Gustafson
Profile Image for Lynn.
780 reviews
November 14, 2016
This was an interesting read about a catastrophic event in Montana in 1964. The story was rather slow.
10 reviews
May 11, 2018
I enjoyed this book very much. the style of writing is unique I felt like I was a trusted friend hearing a story of the real and raw and humorous and sometimes grand stories of a remarkable human being.
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