Montana-based author David Allan Cates plunges us into the raw grief of a recently widowed doctor in his latest novel, Tom Connor’s Gift.

Janine has walked off her shift in a Wisconsin emergency room and driven to a friend’s empty cabin in the Rocky Mountains to confront the emptiness of life without her husband, Mark. She hopes that “the shell of my body will crack and the cold dust inside will blow away in the wind.” A stray puppy appears to keep her company as she revisits her past, reliving her marriage and reading old letters from a man named Tommy Connor, who was her first love, 30 years ago. Meanwhile, outside the cabin, a curious grizzly bear lurks.

This tautly written book, which the Independent Publisher Book Awards just named the year’s best fiction from the Mountain West Region, explores the continuum of human experience, from ecstasy to bone-deep despair. Cates deftly weaves together three strands of life, using Tom’s old letters, Janine’s memories of her husband, and her present experience in a cold, remote corner of Montana. As she reads Tom’s letters, she remembers where she was when she received them; memories of her marriage surface as well. The letters serve as a kind of road map as she journeys through her grief; she ends up reliving her married life in all its complexity, relishing both the bitter and the delightful.

Tom’s letters recount the years he spent living in Central America. He describes the poverty and unrest, but also shares his philosophical meditations and sexual escapades. Back when Janine first received these letters, she had trouble appreciating them; she’d become too frustrated by Tom’s half-crazy alcoholic instability. Now that grief has cracked open her heart, she finds an unexpected treasure in Tom’s words. She reflects, “I feel ashamed at how little I was able to grasp of his struggle, not really to reconcile, but to stay open, to love the world so full of suffering and evil, betrayal and injustice. And isn’t that the work of it? I mean, for all of us? To be brave enough to spread our arms and open our hearts and fill our lungs with the terrible beauty of living? And isn’t that what he … tried so hard and for so long to do?”

With down-to-earth detail and a refreshingly blunt narrator, Cates delivers a tale of transformation that rises to a crescendo with an unforgettable scene involving the bear. Tom Connor’s Gift is a memorable reminder of the richness available to a wide-open heart.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Tom Connor’s Gift

By David Allan Cates


350 pages, $19.95