Town of Winnett inspires a new novel by a New York City author

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Susan Henderson

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Wanting to write something about rural small town America, Susan Henderson stepped away from the rat race of New York City and spent a month in Winnett, where she stayed at the Northern Hotel.

No TV. No landline. No Internet.

“I was entirely disconnected from the world I knew,” she said. “I was cut off from it all, haunted by the clamor that goes on in my head.”

At night, loneliness crept in, which sometimes led to fear.

“When it was nighttime, I felt like I couldn’t leave my room,” she said. “I heard animals and I heard the wind smash around the side of the building.”

Henderson said she knew that, really, she was safe. After all, she’d been to Winnett plenty of times.

“My father was born in Winnett. I used to go about every two years as a kid,” she said. “Most visits were very chore-oriented. My brother and I spent a lot of time at the family cemetery off Lodgepole Creek in the Breaks, fixing fences and digging up sagebrush.”

These visits were not exactly fun for Henderson.

“I was the only girl out there,” she said. “When I’d go visit with my brother, Jeff, it was like ‘city mouse and country mouse.’”

It still is that way.

“Jeff is team doctor for the Lady Grizzlies,” she said. “He knows the land and the animal tracks, while I’m the ‘not Montana’ one.”

On her last visit – in March of 2013 – Henderson went to Winnett alone and tried to overcome her “not Montana” nature by exposing herself to as much as the small 180-person town had to offer.

Fortunately, Henderson had a lot of people looking out for her, including many family friends. Her grandparents – Albert and Esther Adams – were well-respected members of the community. Albert was a trapper and Esther was a teacher.

“Esther eventually became principal of Winnett School,” Henderson said.

During her visit, Henderson took every opportunity she could to get to know the people of the area.

“I spent my time listening, taking pictures and accepting invitations: home cooked meals, senior meetings, church, calf tagging, book club; people couldn’t have been more welcoming.”

One major difference Henderson noticed is how much more physical the world of Winnett is versus the world she knows in New York.

“I met the most self-sufficient people, and they never complained,” she said. “They made me feel like a wimpy, lazy, soft-handed person.”

Sometimes at night, while alone with her own thoughts, Henderson wondered why it was she felt called to Winnett. Why was she doing this? And what kind of story would she come up with?

The answer? “The Flicker of Old Dreams,” a novel about a lonely mortician named Mary, who finds love where she least expects it: while planning an elderly woman’s funeral.

Although Winnett (“Petroleum” in the novel) doesn’t have a mortician, Henderson said she felt this character could illustrate what she wanted to get across about rural America and small town life as we know it; “a eulogy for a dying America.”

“The economy is changing focus and towns like Winnett are getting left behind,” Henderson said. “Change is coming that they aren’t ready for. Through this book I wanted to show respect for places like Winnett.”

This was an ambitious adventure, especially considering she knew nothing of the funeral industry beforehand.

“”The research was fascinating,” she said. “I can tell you honestly I don’t want to be embalmed. I know all about it now.”

Henderson’s intensive research shows in the writing, which is a warning to readers.

“The book definitely has a ‘Six Feet Under’ vibe,” she said. “If you feel queasy getting close to dead people, be careful,” she said.

But, ultimately, there is much more to the book: there is love, there is Montana history and – for the people of Central Montana – there is plenty of familiar scenery.

“If you know Winnett, you’ll recognize it in the book,” she said. “You’ll see the rimrocks and hear the wind. You’ll see Highway 200 and a few rattlesnakes.”

Readers will also recognize the grain elevator, as it plays an instrumental part in the plot.

And they might recognize Agate, a larger town about an hour west of Petroleum.

“I would go to Lewistown about once a week to make phone calls and do laundry,” Henderson said. “I’d get Chinese food, too.”

Lewistown was a welcome break for some variety from the Kozy Korner café, although Henderson said she very much enjoyed that eatery, especially the pie.

“It was amazing,” she said. “It didn’t even matter what flavor. It was all good.”

Although her stay in Winnett had its challenges, Henderson said she looks back fondly on the month and is grateful for the experience.

“When I got back home, I’d even get defensive if someone said something negative about it,” she said. “Some people thought I was going to die out there, and I’d tell them, ‘Hey, you don’t know what it’s like.’”

Henderson grew to appreciate the quiet, the calmness and the different pace of life.

“It’s pretty nice, once you get over the shock of being unplugged,” she said. “I like to think it changed me longterm, but I fell back into the hustle and bustle. Still, I try to remember to slow down.”

Released Tuesday through HarperCollins, “Flicker” is Henderson’s second novel, and is being carried at Keystone Bookstore in Lewistown. Her first novel, “Up From the Blue,” released in 2010, received high praise from several literary agencies. Through the years she’s also had several short pieces published in such publications as “The Best American Non-Required Reading (2007)” and “Drinking Diaries (2012).”