MSU professor Gretchen Minton, author of Shakespeare in Montana

Montana State University English professor Gretchen Minton and her family traveled throughout Montana researching the history of Shakespeare in the state for her book “Shakespeare in Montana,” which won the 2020 Montana Book of the Year award.

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The state’s pick for 2020 Book of the Year opens with a quote from Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night: “There lies your way, due west.”

It’s a sentiment that might have resonated with the early pioneers Gretchen Minton researched for her book, “Shakespeare in Montana.”

The book charts the long love affair between residents of the Treasure State and the Bard of Avon, from pioneers moving west to women’s reading groups and the launch of traveling performances by Montana Shakespeare in the Parks group.

“Shakespeare is an enormously expansive and adaptable author, whose words and characters tend to speak to people across the spectrums of time and place,” Minton wrote in an email. “The expansiveness of Montana seems especially suited to such an author.”

Minton moved to Montana in 2006 and took a job at MSU as a Shakespeare professor. She said she didn’t want it to seem like the Shakespeare was only relevant in England or in urban areas.

“Then my husband, Kevin, told me that the mountain men who came through this area in the 19th century were huge fans of Shakespeare, and I was intrigued to know more,” she said.

In the decade she spent researching the book, Minton traveled throughout the state digging into archives, speaking to residents and following the traveling theater troupe based at MSU, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.

On one research trip, Minton said she stumbled upon a 1802 edition of Shakespeare’s works in Virginia City.

“My family and I had wonderful road trips that immersed us in Montana history and culture, all through the lens of Shakespeare,” she said.

Minton’s research found Shakespeare’s plays were performed during the early mining days in Virginia City. Women’s groups in Helena and Fort Benton would read the plays in the late 19th century.

She was surprised to have won the award after her publisher entered the book into the contest but was “honored and gratified” that the book has gained so much attention, Minton said.

The award committee, which is comprised of individuals representing areas throughout the state, said Minton chronicles the state’s love affair with Shakespeare and in the process reveals a lot about the state’s history.

“From mountain men, pioneers and itinerant acting companies in mining camps to women’s clubs at the turn of the twentieth century and the contemporary popularity of Shakespeare in the Parks throughout Montana, the book chronicles the stories of residents who have been attracted to the words and works of Shakespeare,” the awards committee said in a press release.

Minton and her husband, Kevin Brustuen, are also scheduled to discuss Shakespeare and theater in Montana at a free virtual forum on March 24 at 6 p.m.

Minton said there are likely many Shakespearean encounters in Montana that she isn’t aware of and encourages people to contact her to share their own stories. Her personal Shakespearean favorite is King Lear because “it speaks in so many ways, and so deeply, that it never ceases to move me.”

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