The Billings Outpost

‘The Home Place’ has great writing, flaws

*BOOKS*

By STEPHEN DOW - The Billings Outpost

Billings lawyer Carrie La Seur’s debut novel “The Home Place,” coming out this month, is an engaging and thoughtful novel that dares readers to ask: “What is home? And why is it so important?”

The novel tells the story of Alma Terrebonne, a Montana native who is a lawyer in Seattle. When she finds out that her sister Vicky has died, Alma must confront her own past failures as she returns home and tries to find out the truth about her sibling’s death.

La Seur’s story tries to be many things at once, and it succeeds at some more than others. In just over 300 pages, it contains elements of a murder mystery, family drama and romance. It also attempts to address deeper political issues affecting Montana citizens today.

The mystery driving this story is a compelling one: Was Alma’s sister Vicky murdered or did she simply die from overexposure to Billings’ awful winter weather? And, if it’s the former, then who committed the crime? The mystery keeps the audience guessing until the shocking ending.

The quieter family moments are also quite involving due to the well-developed characters that La Seur fills her pages with. Alma is a particularly relatable character as she tries to rectify her past mistakes and struggles to make the right decisions for her orphaned niece Brittany.

The supporting characters are equally memorable. My personal favorites include Alma’s tender and loving grandmother Maddie, Detective Curtis (the Crow man investigating Vicky’s death), and Alma’s Aunt Helen.

La Seur surrounds these characters with some well developed settings. It’s clear that she knows the town of Billings well as she references many local landmarks (including Montana State University Billings and Billings Clinic) throughout the story. However, as La Seur mentions on her website, she’s not going to be writing tourism brochures for the city anytime soon: Her portrayal of Billings focuses on the city’s dark side while ignoring many of its more positive aspects.

Perhaps that’s because the author’s heart is drawn towards Montana’s rural areas. It is obvious that La Seur has a love for this unchanged land and the people who still live on it as if they were from an earlier era. This affection makes the sections of the book set at Alma’s “Home Place” particularly engaging and memorable.

The Oxford-educated La Seur knows how to write some beautiful sentences as well. Take for example, this memorable opening paragraph:

“The cold on a January night in Billings, Montana, is personal and spiritual. It knows your weaknesses. It communicates with your fears. If you have a god, this cold pulls a veil between you and your deity … . It sounds like wolves and reverberates like drums in all the hollow places where you wonder who you are and what you would do in extremis. In this cold, you understand at last that you are not brave at all.”

Perhaps my favorite line comes early on when Alma is talking to Detective Curtis:

“Detective Cutis’s voice is soft, contrite, and marked with the softshoe rhythms of a native Crow speaker. Ka-hay. Sho’o Daa Chi, Alma thinks, the greeting all she remembers of the language that floats unseen through the city like water in the irrigation ditches, dust underfoot, ever present, barely acknowledged.”

Though “The Home Place” works as a whole, there are still some problematic issues that make it a bit less enjoyable.

While the first and last few chapters are engaging and intriguing, the book does lag quite a bit in the middle – especially as La Seur takes a break from both the mystery and the family drama to focus on a romance between Alma and her high school crush Chance Murphy. I am not normally opposed to romances, but this one is so predictable and takes up such a large chunk of the book that it distracts from some of the more thoughtful and creative ideas that La Seur introduces.

La Seur’s political commentary is similarly unsuccessful. Her attempt to address the impact of industrialization on rural lands is too broad. The main coal company employee in the book is a forgettable one-dimensional villain who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get land rights. In reality, this issue is much deeper and complex than the simple conclusion that La Seur reaches: Coal companies are evil and home owners are good.

While the treatment of coal companies in this book is heavy-handed, the other political issue that La Seur addresses is dealt with so briefly that most readers will completely miss it. Through the character of Detective Curtis, La Seur attempts to address the bigotry shown toward Native Americans in Montana. It’s a subject worth addressing, but La Seur only brings it up in two short and fairly forgettable conversations. In fact, I didn’t even realize that La Seur was trying to address this issue until I looked at her website a few days after finishing the book.

Though “The Home Place” has some problems, it is certainly worth reading. At the very least, it serves as a likable introduction to a talented new writer. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another decade for her next book.

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 July 2014 10:45

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Chinese pollution may threaten American food

FLASH IN THE PAN - *MEDICAL*

By ARI LEVAUX

Heavy metal pollution makes no distinction between how crops are grown. Supposedly clean agricultural practices like organic will offer no protection, if the likes of cadmium, arsenic, lead, nickel and mercury are in the soil or water.

Human practices like mining and manufacturing are by far the largest source of potential contamination. Such activities release heavy metals into the air and water, from where they find their ways into the soil and plants, from where they are extremely difficult to remove.

Last April the Chinese government acknowledged that a staggering one-fifth of its arable land is seriously polluted with heavy metals, thanks to decades of aggressive industrial development. China’s Environmental Protection Ministry, looking at samples taken between 2006 and 2013, described the situation as “not optimistic.”

The revelation came after months of speculation about the report, which at one point was not going to be released as the results were considered to be a “state secret.”

Heavy metals can accumulate in the body, causing chronic problems in the skin, intestine, nervous system, kidneys, liver, and brain. Some can occur naturally in soil, though rarely at toxic levels (although some plants, like rice, are really good at accumulating some metals, like arsenic).

The most commonly found heavy metals were cadmium, nickel and arsenic. Cadmium, one of the most toxic of heavy metals, moves through soil layers with ease, and is taken up by a variety of plants, including leafy vegetables, root crops, cereals and grains. Last year it was discovered that nearly half of the rice for sale in the southern China city of Guangzhou was tainted with cadmium.

Nickel and arsenic, the other two pollutants found in greatest amounts, aren’t so great either.

In the U.S., arsenic in apple juice has been on the radar since September of 2011, when Dr. Mehmet Oz reported high arsenic levels in multiple samples of apple juice that were independently tested for his television show. More than half of the apple juice consumed in the U.S. comes from China.

Oz was taken to the woodshed by a number of experts and authorities, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which disputed the results with its own data. ABC News’ senior health medical editor Dr. Richard Besser called Oz’s claims “extremely irresponsible,” and compared it to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

A few weeks later FDA admitted that it had withheld many test results which did, in fact, support Oz’s claim. Besser apologized to Oz on national television, and soon after the FDA collected about 90 retail samples of apple juice for a new round of analysis. According to FDA documents now available, the levels reported by Oz are in fact consistent with those detected by the agency in samples from China and Turkey.

Last year the FDA set a limit, also known as an “action level,” on arsenic in juice, at 10 parts per billion, the same level that’s enforced in drinking water. Currently, FDA has import alerts set for four companies that deal in apple concentrates, two each in China and Turkey. The products of these companies are regularly tested for arsenic because of previous violations of this action level, but they continue to be imported.

While China isn’t the only polluted place from which we import food, with a combination of aggressive industrial development and legendarily lax enforcement, it’s become a poster child for scary food imports. But any region with rapid industrial development and suspect environmental regulations could be a candidate for producing food contaminated with heavy metals (and other toxins, for that matter).

While we don’t import a huge amount of food from China overall, we do consume large amounts of certain things in addition to apple juice, like garlic and farmed seafood - including 80 percent of the tilapia we eat. Much of China’s surface water, including water where aquaculture occurs, is polluted, not only with industrial toxins but also agricultural fertilizers, which fuels the growth of algae. Algae can accumulate heavy metals, as will the fish that eat it.

“Foods offered for import into the U.S. are required to meet the same U.S. food safety standards as domestic products,” explained FDA Press Officer Lauren Sucher, via email. “If the FDA encounters information that indicates that a particular product could pose a public health concern, the FDA can target that product for increased testing.”

When asked if the revelation that 20 percent of China’s farmland is polluted with heavy metals will inspire increased testing on Chinese imports, Sucher replied, “The FDA doesn’t announce its actions in advance. If our surveillance sampling indicated a problem with a particular commodity, the agency would take steps to protect the public.”

Wary consumers who aren’t interested in waiting for FDA to possibly ramp up its testing of Chinese food imports can take their own measures to minimize the possibility of contamination. Local, as in American-grown produce, will trump labels such as “organic,” if the food in question was grown in a potentially polluted place.

In fact, if the food is grown in a polluted place, organic produce could contain more heavy metals than conventionally grown food. Organic agriculture practices include the use of manure, which could add heavy metals to the soil if the cattle were eating contaminated feed, such as hay grown in a contaminated field, according to Dr. Michael Schmitt, a soil scientist at the University of Minnesota.

“Once you put metals in a field,” he told me by phone, “they don’t go away.”

The notion that organic food from a polluted place like China could carry more heavy metals than nonorganic food from the U.S. puts a new spin on the idea of eating locally.

In this case, eating locally could mean consuming food grown anywhere in this vast continent. But in a way, the reasons are similar to why many people prefer buying from the local farm stand: You have more information about how something is grown. But using this information requires knowing something about where you live. Such as, is there any heavy metal contamination around here?

Last Updated on Saturday, 19 July 2014 10:31

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Montana teens text and drive

*MEDICAL*

By DEBORAH COURSON SMITH - Big Sky Connection

HELENA – Teens in Montana and throughout the nation were quizzed about their behavior and lifestyle choices for the latest Youth Risk Behavior survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The survey showed teen smoking has dropped below the target level of 16 percent. But that victory is tempered by the number of young people nationally, 41 percent, who admit to texting or e-mailing while driving. In Montana, that rate is about 56 percent.

Stephanie Zaza, director of the division of adolescent and school health at the CDC, urged parents to step in to stop any behavior that takes a teen’s attention away from the road.

“Parents play an active role in keeping their teen drivers safe,” said Zaza, “by close monitoring, frequent discussions, parent-teen driving agreements and acting as a role model of good driving habits.”

Tom Frieden, CDC Director, said the smoking reduction numbers are a fragile victory, because of the rise in popularity of e-cigarettes, smoking pens and electronic hookahs, as well as a lack of regulations for those products.

“We’re particularly concerned with e-cigarettes re-glamorizing smoking traditional cigarettes,” said Frieden, “maybe making it more complicated to enforce smoke-free laws that protect all nonsmokers.”

The study also found that teens are drinking fewer sodas and less alcohol. They’re also getting into fewer fights, but condom use has also become less common.

, and most teens are still not eating a balanced diet. While most young people are spending fewer hours watching television, they’ve replaced it with time spent before a computer beyond school reasons.

Last Updated on Saturday, 19 July 2014 10:31

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PA alumna tells students how it is

*MEDICAL*

Rocky Mountain College

Stephanie (Ridgway) Hudson, who became a physician assistant in 2012 in the Rocky Mountain College Master of Physician Assistant Studies program, works in a general surgery practice as the first-ever PA among seven surgeons. Her coworkers say uniformly, “Why didn’t we do this before [have a PA]? It’s so much easier!” she said.

In June, she spoke to the class of 2015 before they begin their year of clinical rotations for their PA certification. “There are not enough primary care providers,” she said about the first years of her career. “More and more patients are coming in with the ACA [Affordable Care Act] – people who’d put off surgeries.”

She is in the operating room three days a week, usually for thoracic surgeries. “Wednesday is Whipple day,” she said, for the extensive surgeries that deal with cancers at the head of the pancreas. “What we can take apart and put together to create a functioning digestive system is just amazing.” Hudson is the first assistant and does teasing apart of blood vessels, cauterization and tying.

Being on call is the greatest opportunity, she said. “The first line is the PA. We decide ‘When does the doc need to be involved? Does the patient need to go to the OR now? What will they need, a central line?’”

“You guys are so much more prepared than the other guys out there,” she reiterated to the Rocky Mountain College students.

RMC President Bob Wilmouth taught Hudson when he directed the RMC MPAS program. He told the first-years, who head to rotations in August, “When you guys go out and knock it out, they see you guys and want a Rocky grad. It’s a pay-it-forward model, and it has worked here.”

Hudson and her husband, Jeff (’10 MPAS), found dual PA careers in Vancouver, Wash. He joined a private practice in orthopedic surgery and trauma after a one-year Chicago residency in which he worked 80 to 100 hours a week. A surgeon in his current practice had endured the same residency, so they hired him for a job he might not have otherwise qualified for.

Back in the RMC classroom, she did not hesitate to rapid-fire quiz current grad students. “What are the indications for a cholesystectomy [gall bladder removal]? What are the most common complications [of the surgery]? So what would you do in that case?” she asked.

Her questions all came from her experiences. Students’ faces brightened as they saw the parallel thought processes of their revered instructors and of an alumna. “Offer to take call on all your rotations,” she said, because RMC students learn as much as anyone can.

Hudson’s advice for clinical year? Without any notes, she rattled off “Always be early and always dress professionally, even before surgery. Prepare before exams. Always wear the white coat. Be willing to document fully. Enjoy the specialty. Find an answer before anyone asks you again. And don’t hesitate to share questions – they’re all waiting for you to ask.”

Last Updated on Saturday, 19 July 2014 10:34

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RiverStone accredited

*MEDICAL*

RiverStone Health, Yellowstone County’s public health department, received accreditation notification from the Public Health Accreditation Board last month.

RiverStone Health is the first public health department in Eastern Montana to be nationally accredited and one of fewer than 50 health departments nationwide to earn PHAB accreditation. 

To receive accreditation, a news release said, a health department must undergo a rigorous, multi-faceted, peer-reviewed assessment process to ensure that it meets or exceeds a set of quality standards and measures.

There are more than 3,000 public health departments in the United States, and hundreds are seeking national accreditation. RiverStone Health and the Missoula City-County Health Department are the only two local health departments accredited in Montana, although several other local health departments in the state are working toward accreditation. 

The PHAB voluntary accreditation program works to improve and protect the health of the public by advancing the performance of the nation’s Tribal, state, local and territorial public health departments, the news release said. PHAB, which launched in 2011 after more than a decade of development, is jointly funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 

Last Updated on Saturday, 19 July 2014 10:31

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‘Dire Wolf’ doesn’t work

*BOOKS*

“Dire Wolf,” by Eric Jubb. Self-published. Paperback, 493 pages.

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

You really can’t judge a book by its cover. “Dire Wolf,” a new Montana-based novel by Eric Jubb, has a handsome cover with a wolf looking balefully at the reader. The back cover is a lovely shot of Flathead Lake.

It’s what’s in between those covers that causes problems. It’s a promising enough story about an ancient breed of canines that come back to haunt modern Montana and about a wounded veteran who is trying to stop the attacks. But the writing just doesn’t get the job done.

Mr. Jubb  relies heavily on dialogue for exposition, which would be tough to pull off even if the dialogue were better. But the dialogue is nowhere near enough to carry the story.

Much of it reads about like this:

“Thanks, Gavin, for the ice cream.”

“You’re welcome, Feather. I’ll see you in the next day or two.”

This is not the sort of dialogue that leaves one hungering for more.

Mr. Jubb does have basic skills, and he seems to have a knack for original ideas. But he still has an apprenticeship to serve before turning out a novel that is worth your time.

Last Updated on Saturday, 19 July 2014 10:42

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Marketing expertise helps students, businesses

BUSINESS

MSU Billings News Services

Business students in A.J. Otjen’s marketing communications courses at Montana State University Billings discover there’s more to creating a great marketing campaign than meets the eye.

“It’s more of a visual call to action,” senior marketing major Alissa Barth said. “All aspects of marketing are involved—from psychology to research, to analysis, communications and execution.”

Barth was one of 13 business students who were tasked over the past year with creating three 30-second commercial spots for the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch as part of a two-semester long project focused on applying classroom theory into real-world practice.

The commercials began airing this month on Bresnan and Charter Communications stations.

Students enrolled in Dr. Otjen’s Integrated Marketing and Communications fall semester course and, subsequently, her spring semester Applied Marketing and Communications Undergraduate Research course, work with community businesses and nonprofit organizations who need help with brand identity and marketing strategies.

The project is an ongoing effort by Otjen, associate professor of marketing in the College of Business, who has over the past decade worked with clients such as the Salvation Army, Billings Depot and the Beartooth Nature Center. She and her students have garnered 11 American Advertising Awards — six of which are gold awards.

For students, Otjen said, the opportunity is a taste of how the professional world will be different from the learning environment of their classroom.

“The strategy and client set the pace and project deadlines,” Otjen said. “The coursework is designed to be as close to real life as possible so that the students have a clear understanding of the dynamic and sometimes messy experiences.”

This year’s class worked with Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch to help advance public awareness of its programs . Students researched best practices for the industry and worked closely with YBGR to develop the message.

“Youth suicide and mental health is a serious issue, and YBGR has many community-based services to help address these issues,” Barth said. “The messages we helped develop were clear — the whole community needs to be a part of the solution to teen suicide and other mental health issues youth experience. YBGR is here to help youth and their families whether it is in their home, school or life.”

Otjen and YBGR set parameters for the students on how to stay consistent with the organization’s brand identity and ensure copyright law and university policies weren’t violated. Outside of this, students were given creative freedom to script and direct the commercials.

Participating businesses and nonprofits provide the funding for research, production and design expenses. Often times, nonprofits are awarded grants and sponsorships to help cover the cost.

The class collaborates with Spotlight Productions, a Billings-based video and marketing company. The production company has sponsored a large portion of their services since 2005 for participating nonprofits.

Anne Gauer, one of two principals of the production company, said before video production begins in the spring semester, students verify every statistic and test each one of their concepts in the fall semester to see what marketing strategy will be most effective.

“These students are very busy, hardworking people and their efficiency always impresses me,” Gauer said.

Although the production is a team effort, each student was assigned roles such as script writing, talent casting, location scouting, costume and set design, and budget and time management.

Next year, Otjen and her students will work with Billings Clinic and a marketing campaign aimed at fighting childhood obesity.

“Service-learning helps students understand social responsibilities, which is essential to becoming a successful business person,” Otjen said. “Students are gaining such a valuable educational experience.”

Students are also making a positive impact on the Billings community, Barth said.

“The results of our efforts matter. It’s not just about getting a good grade, it’s truly about making a difference,” she said.

Those interested in working with the marketing class must be willing to spend time with the students and provide management, operations, marketing and financial information to the team. For more information on how to be a participating business or organization, contact Otjen at 657-4378 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 June 2014 21:51

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Local breweries win

BUSINESS

More than a dozen Montana breweries won awards at the 2014 North American Beer Awards this month in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Breweries from Belgrade, Bigfork, Billings, Hamilton, Lakeside, Missoula, Philipsburg and Whitefish all placed in their divisions.

Montana is home to 46 breweries that employ more than 500 Montanans, with at least six more expected to open later this year. Brewers use more than 6 million pounds of malted grain, much of which is grown in Montana. In 2013, craft beer production increased by 15 percent.

Below is a list of the Montana breweries that received recognition at this year’s competition:

Billings winners were:

Canyon Creek Brewing: Silver medal for One Night Stand.

Carter’s Brewing: Gold medals for Rob Moore Abbey Ale and The Golden Boy’ silver medal for Biere de Mars 2014; bronze medals for Switchyard Scottish Ale and Franbeaux.

Montana Brewing Co.: Bronze medals for Whitetail Wheat and Beartooth Espresso Porter.

Uberbrew: Bronze medal for Black Hops Tactical IPA.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 June 2014 21:50

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Employment up

BUSINESS

HELENA – Montana’s unemployment rate dropped 0.2 percentage points over the month for a rate of 4.6 percent in May. The U.S. unemployment rate held steady at 6.3 percent.

Total employment, which includes payroll employment plus agricultural and self-employed workers, added 1,326 jobs in May. Montana has added over 10,000 jobs since the beginning of the year, and since May 2013 has had an annual growth rate of 2.1 percent. In comparison, Montana’s average growth rate is roughly 1 percent annually.The labor force increased by 341 workers.

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 June 2014 21:46

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New citizens sworn in

By STEPHEN DOW - The Billings Outpost

Thirty-three immigrants from 19 countries were sworn in as U.S. citizens during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ceremony on Thursday, June 19, at the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse.

Nearly 100 people attended the event to support loved ones who had immigrated from Barbados, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Guatemala, India, Italy, Japan, Mauritania, Mexico, Mongolia, Pakistan, Philippines, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Deputy Court Clerk Heather Mclean said, “We don’t usually have this many people who want to come to court proceedings … . This is about the only time that people are excited to come to court, and we’re OK with that.”

The hour-long ceremony was a joyous and often raucous occasion filled with clapping, hugging, smiling and shouting.

“Hooray for mommy!” a young boy shouted as his mother, Italian-born Veronica Rousseau, accepted her citizenship certificate.

“I did it!” exclaimed a Barbados native as she accepted her certificate and waved a small U.S. flag in the air.

“This is pretty exciting,” U.S. District Judge Susan Watters said near the beginning of the ceremony. “This is the first naturalization ceremony that I’ve presided over because I’ve only been a federal judge for six months.”

She added, “As you can imagine, a lot of what I do in this courtroom is not particularly joyful. When people leave, they are often crying, but not with the tears of joy that I see today. I want to congratulate you on behalf of the United States and the state of Montana.”

Everybody had a reason to celebrate. The ceremony marked the end of a long naturalization process that included filling out paperwork and taking a citizenship test.

The 33 Billings residents join 778,000 immigrants who have become naturalized U.S. citizens during fiscal year 2013.

Judge Watters commented that the long naturalization process helps these new citizens “appreciate being a United States citizen more than people who were born here. Many of us tend to take it for granted.”

Representatives of U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh and U.S. Rep. Steve Daines were on hand to give their congratulations to the new citizens.

“Today represents many things,” said Tester’s representative, Rachel Court. “The United States of America is granting you the opportunity to participate in this country as a citizen. In turn, you are granting this country and its citizens the chance to know you and learn from you. As you leave today, know that we are very glad to have you.”

Near the end of the ceremony, Judge Watters reminded attendees of rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens in the Constitution and said, “We have all these rights that I know many of you did not have in your countries of origin, and rights that many natural-born U.S. citizens take for granted, but it’s days like today and ceremonies like this one that remind all of us how wonderful it is to live in the United States and how blessed we are to be United States citizens.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 June 2014 21:44

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