In Memoriam: Peter Bowen, novelist and historian

Peter Bowen

Peter Bowen wrote a series of historical novels set in Montana in the 19th and early 20th century that featured a fictionalized version of the real-life Western character Luther Sage ‘Yellowstone’ Kelly (above). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

LIVINGSTON, Mont. – Peter Bowen, a novelist who found acclaim and literary success writing about the Montana he loved, has died at age 74.

Bowen died Wednesday at his home in Livingston, The Montana Standard reported. He died of heart failure after a fall, according to his obituary published in the Livingston Enterprise.

Bowen was best-known for a series of 15 mystery novels set in the fictional Eastern Montana town of Toussaint and featuring a Metis brand inspector named Gabriel Du Pre.

He also wrote a four-book series of historical novels set in Montana in the 19th and early 20th century that blended history and humor in a way that delighted readers and critics alike. They featured a fictionalized version of the real-life Western character Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly, a soldier, frontiersman, hunter and scout.

Bowen was a writer’s writer, respected for his wordsmithing – and his irreverence and sardonic humor, The Montana Standard reported. For a time, he wrote columns for Forbes FYI magazine under the name “Coyote Jack.”

The writer Christopher Buckley, a pretty good hand at comic novels himself, was the editor at the magazine who commissioned the columns from Bowen, and he said he knew he had a winner when he read the first line of the first column: “Sorry to be late in answering. I sprained my wrist on a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Indeed, the column became one of the magazine’s most popular features.

Buckley considered Bowen one of his very best friends, even though they met in person only once during a correspondence that dated from 1982 to a couple of days before Bowen’s death.

Buckley said he has more than 1,000 letters from Bowen, and someday he would like to compile their correspondence and publish it.

“He was an American original,” Buckley said, “and a dear friend. I always learned something with everything he sent me. There was always a story. His well of stories was deeper than the Marianas Trench.”

Peter Bowen was born May 22, 1945 in Athens, Georgia, and was adopted immediately after his birth by Keith and Marie Bowen. Keith Bowen was an educator and in the first years of Peter’s life they lived in Colorado and Indiana while Keith Bowen obtained his doctorate. Then, when Peter was 10, the family moved to Bozeman, where his father became a professor at Montana State College. His mother was one of the earliest volunteers at the Museum of the Rockies.

Bowen said in a self-written biographical sketch that his paper route ended at a Bozeman bar called The Oaks, where he would linger and listen to the stories being told by old cowboys. “They were men in their eighties and nineties,” Bowen said, “and some had ridden up in the cattle drives from Texas in the 1870s. … That gave me the habit of eavesdropping in bars. You can hear whole novels in an afternoon.”

Clearly the romance of the West had an effect, and he loved the out of doors, riding his bicycle to favorite fishing and hunting haunts. A few days before Bowen was supposed to start junior high school, he took a rifle he had illegally purchased – he was only 12, after all – and decamped to a hideout in the Bridgers, high above town, stopping at the post office on the way to drop off a letter to his parents.

He stayed up there for weeks. His mother helped get supplies to him, but finally went to the sheriff and asked whether they should mount a rescue effort to bring him down. “No, it’ll snow soon, and he’ll come down,” the sheriff supposedly told her. And it did, and he did.

Eventually, he went to the University of Michigan, which he attended “without much effect on either of us,” Bowen said.

There he discovered the folk-music world at a coffee house on campus, which he ended up managing for a time, bringing in acts like Tom Rush, Doc Watson and a young Joni Mitchell. He also fell in love with south-side Chicago blues.

Like his character Yellowstone Kelly, Bowen himself was good at more than one thing. He learned the construction trade to put food in his mouth, and those skills would later serve him well as he fell in love with woodworking. He also would work as a cowboy, a folksinger and a fishing guide while he practiced the craft of writing.

A big, gruff, shaggy man, he loved many dogs and a very few people. For years he lived by this river or that in Montana, writing and fishing and enjoying his solitude.

When the first and second Du Pre novels, Coyote Wind and Specimen Song came out, they were greeted with critical fanfare – including a memorable New York Times rave review headlined “Thoreau in Montana.” The series continued to collect readers and praiseful reviews over the next two and a half decades.

Even though reclusive, he was always a great correspondent, and his few friends, like Buckley, heard from him frequently.

One of those people he cared for and kept in touch with was Christine Whiteside, whom he met back in the ’60s at the Ann Arbor coffee house. More than half a century later, Bowen and Christine Whiteside were married in 2013, and made their home in Livingston.

Bowen wrote several other novels, including one, Buffalo Star, a fictional account of Daniel Boone’s wanderings in Montana. Rick Ardinger, Limberlost Press editor and publisher, read the manuscript years ago and only recently discovered it had not been published. He said Limberlost plans to do so in 2021-22.

Ardinger said Bowen was “as wild and compelling and engaging as a historical character” from one of his novels. “Montana and the West were in his blood, a river of history that poured out best over a hammering typewriter,” he added.

A 16th and final Du Pre novel is also completed, pending finishing touches from Whiteside, who also served as Bowen’s editor in recent years. At least three other Montana historical novels await discovery by publishers, including Water Rose, a love story and thriller set in the Prohibition era.

Bowen was working on a memoir at the time of his death. “I am at sixty thousand words and with a clear path to the end, and if I can avoid getting ill I will be done before May,” he wrote a friend a week ago. Whiteside said that the part he has written will be treasured by family members. “But no one can finish it, because they were Peter’s stories, and only he knew them.”

Bowen is survived by his wife; a younger brother, Bill; two nieces, Alison Guan of Palo Alto and Natalie Brookshire of San Francisco; and his stepdaughter, Elizabeth Bedford of Seattle.

Whiteside said that depending on the pandemic, she expects that Bowen’s friends and family will gather this summer in Livingston for a memorial.

By DAVID McCUMBER, The Montana Standard

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