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For Robert Leonard Reid, protecting wilderness is a literary act.

The Carson City, Nev.-based writer has spent 40 years roving Western landscapes in an effort to preserve them, primarily through his words. Reid’s latest work, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West, displays an almost claustral curiosity: An exploratory spirit envelops and propels him across the Arctic, the Sierras, the Rockies, the sacred spaces of Native America and all the toeholds and crags in between, from the High Plains of eastern New Mexico to the Bugaboos in British Columbia.

Reid writes with the flair of daredevil naturalist Craig Childs and the philosophical quotient of nature essayist Edward Hoagland. The book functions like an atlas; each essay is a wayfinding tool, navigating the reader toward “the mystique of the American West”—something that, despite the book’s subtitle, he seeks not to unravel, but preserve: “A journey into the Sierra, even today, is a journey into ambiguity and mystery … any account of a wilderness journey that omits the ambiguity … is bound to be false.” Mystique is his muse in these essays, which blend wilderness and adventure writing, environmental reportage, and historical and literary analysis. Drawing on three earlier books and previously unpublished material, this career-spanning collection was a finalist for the 2018 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

A central question unifies the book: How do you truly know a place? Topophilia—loving a particular landscape and identifying with it deeply—might be innate in each of us, but it is not necessarily accessible to us. It is for Reid, however. A formative experience with environmental writer Barry Lopez in 1979 fired Reid’s literary intuitions. A mountain climber and would-be writer, Reid attended a wilderness-preservation conference that Lopez keynoted. His speech struck Reid like a bolt from the sky. Lopez argued that wilderness activists needed to tell their legislators “that a certain river or butterfly or mountain … must be saved, not because of its economic (or) recreational or historical or scientific value, but because it is so beautiful.” Reid’s future as a writer flashed into focus. Aesthetic value alone can save a landscape, but not unless it has a voice.

Reid builds that voice through sentences that construct landscapes and court curiosity, as his lexicon shifts with the terrain. His diction bewitches even the sleepiest of readers: J. Robert Oppenheimer is a “Heldentenor in cowboy boots”; the scientists at Los Alamos, those “Kyries of Trinity,” are “hosannas.” Reid is a craftsman: “Writers who hope to reveal the essential matter of their subjects must have the patience, the facility, and, not least of all, the good luck to discover the proper light.”

Reid is keen on New Mexico, whose “wide skies and yawning spaces” remind him of the Judeo-Christian tradition of “seeking God in big empty country.” Such places attract people “drawn to grand vistas and soul-searching ruminations”—such as Oppenheimer. Reid understands the contradictory forces at play in sacred spaces. In Los Alamos, “physics and engineering became prayers and incantations,” as if the magnitude of scientific discovery was a manifestation of the divine itself. A pilgrimage to a back-to-the-lander’s remote cabin in Alaska’s Brooks Range—“80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, 50 miles from the nearest neighbor, 200 miles from the nearest road”—dovetails with a story about the elusive Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates annually to its calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Reid tracks down the caribou right as they give birth, unraveling a mystical ecological process that had previously eluded him.

Whether one agrees that awe and beauty trump economics might be beside the point for Reid. His writings are about the larger point: the courage it takes to pursue one’s ultimate aim, or telos. “To save a wilderness, or to be a writer or a cab driver or a homemaker—to live one’s life—one must reach deep into one’s heart and find what is there, then speak it plainly and without shame.” There is an evolutionary quality to the way his ideas mutate and build in the book, with each successive essay refining his lens on the West. This makes sense. You can’t capture mystique; it continually enchants us and then slips away. The more Reid interfaces with it—the more peaks and passes he pursues—the more his essays (and he) unfold.

Eric Siegel, a poet and writer, is a field instructor for the Wild Rockies Field Institute in Montana, and teaches Environmental Humanities at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West

By Robert Leonard Reid

Counterpoint

320 pages, $16.95

 

Published in Literature

The Basque Country of northern Spain and southern France is a land of misty coastlines and damp mountains—green and soft. Yet in the 19th and 20th centuries, many Basques immigrated to some of the driest regions of the United States—places like Nevada, eastern Oregon and Idaho.

One Basque shepherd recalled his first experiences after arriving in Nevada: “I wasn’t much more than 16 years old, you know. And they sent me into the desert with a dog and 3,000 sheep. … Though Basques are used to being alone, these deserts were something else.”

A century later, a family from the Spanish Basque Country relocated to the urban wilds of Reno. Bernardo Atxaga’s Nevada Days once again raises the question: How does someone who grew up in a verdant European countryside respond, mentally and physically, to a bone-dry land with blazing horizons? In the case of Atxaga, one of the Basque Country’s most celebrated writers, it stirred up old memories and prompted a sprawling series of stories within a story. Atxaga (pronounced “Achaga”) spent the academic year of 2007-2008 in a writer’s program at the University of Nevada, accompanied by his wife and two school-age daughters. Ten years later, he published Nevada Days.

Technically a novel, it retains the realistic feel of a travelogue—and, presumably, it is largely just that. But the distinction here between fiction and nonfiction may not be that important anyway. Perhaps the most valuable quality of Nevada Days is that it gives the American reader the opportunity to re-imagine a familiar Western landscape from an articulate outsider’s perspective.

Atxaga’s observations highlight the particularities of a Nevada-style desert. Soon after arriving in Reno, the central character of Nevada Days writes a letter to a friend back home about a long drive with a friendly neighbor. He had been expecting a Lawrence of Arabia kind of landscape, a sea of sand. Instead, he found trees and shrubs, “piles of rocks” and trapezoidal mountains. “Seeing those trapezoid mountains in the distance, I got quite confused. I lost all sense of time and space. If someone had told me that I was travelling in the Discovery space shuttle rather than in Earle’s Chevrolet Avalanche, that we were crossing outer space and not the Nevada desert, I would have believed them.” But later that fall, his “mind turns the corner”: Walking into a dusty bookshop in Reno, he encounters just the right kind of silence, and then just the right kind of music (Summertime … and the living is easy). This “lent Nevada a pleasant lightness and suddenly it didn’t seem so very difficult to live there.”

Arguably, it is place, rather than people, that drives this novel. Nevada and its natural features are imbued with Atxaga’s underlying themes of violence, death and memory. Rattlesnakes and alien, abstracted mountain shapes suggest an existential threat. Black-widow spiders, and the kind of people who keep them, represent the very real threat of a killer who stalks young women at the University of Nevada and makes Atxaga’s main character fearful for his daughters. Meanwhile, the raccoon that makes regular appearances in the backyard—initially a startling figure with eyes that shine in the night—becomes a comforting source of consistency in the family’s Reno home.

The landscape of language plays a role here, too. Atxaga is a much-admired author who has published in both Spanish and Basque; Nevada Days was written in Basque, translated into Spanish by Atxaga, and then rendered into a recognizably British form of English by a professional translator. The text emphasizes sensations, metaphor and musings that leave the reader with visceral impressions: mysterious desert, loud city, intimidating mountains. Westerners might expect Atxaga to present a clichéd version of his visit, developing Old West tropes of ghost towns, brothels and vulgar Americana. But though Atxaga is not interested in tearing down American culture, he does bring the critical eye of an outsider to its peculiarities.

In the spring, the novel’s main character drives to Lake Tahoe to attend the memorial service of a soldier who was killed in Iraq. When he gets to the little mountain church, he is alarmed by the sentimental military poetry and the priest’s “velvety voice” repeating the refrain—“Honor. Duty. Sacrifice”—while speaking about a war that many found immoral. As he often does, Atxaga responds to Nevada by invoking references to European events and commentators, creating unexpected yet relevant connections that prompt the reader to reframe familiar ideas. In this case, the main character imagines himself reciting his own lines—created in response to the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid—at the American soldier’s service: “Life is life / And the most precious thing of all. / To lose a life is to lose everything.”

For Westerners concerned about the danger of cultural myopia, Nevada Days is a gift—a foreigner’s snapshot of place that is personalized, literary and thoughtful.

Sierra Standish is a doctoral student studying environmental history at the University of Colorado. This piece was originally published in High Country News.

Nevada Days

By Bernardo Atxaga

Graywolf Press

352 pages, $16

Published in Literature

It’s hard to hide from the news these days, even in the pages of a book. Buffalo Cactus, a collection of 21 recent stories with Western settings, delves into hot-button issues such as immigration, addiction and, inadvertently, the #MeToo movement: It features one story by disgraced author Ron Carlson, who resigned from UC Irvine in August 2018 (five months after Buffalo Cactus was published), following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Aside from the Carlson story, which the reader can easily ignore, Buffalo Cactus offers a chance to move past the stark headlines and discover the nuanced human stories that underlie them. Alberto Álvaro Ríos’ “Ten Seconds in Two Lives” opens the collection with the affecting, fable-like tale of Julio and Marta, two legal immigrants from Mexico—young, in love and struggling financially as they start out their new lives together. One day, Julio unwittingly becomes involved in a drug deal, earning $200. In the end, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border had not been nearly as momentous as the couple expected, but this transaction, Julio thought, “felt like the moment, the thing he always thought he would feel, the line, the crossing over.”

Many stories share this focus on people eking out a living on the margins of society. In Judy Troy’s “Lugar Tranquilo,” two elderly widows living in a mobile-home retirement community in Santa Fe become friends. Louise’s late husband’s gambling left her nearly penniless, but she cheerfully supports herself with a job at a hotel. “A job took you out of yourself and into the drama of the world,” she thinks. When a few mistakes convince her manager she’s too old to work, she must depend on the kindness of her neighbor.

Victor Lodato’s heart-rending story “Jack, July” captures the hopeless loop of meth addiction as a young man makes his way down Speedway Boulevard in Tucson on a blistering day, seeking drugs, shelter and love. Through quirky, piercing details, Lodato brings us into Jack’s mind, offering insight into the experience of meth addiction: “People going fast rearranged the furniture, or crawled around looking for carpet crumbs. Anything that used your hands, which, compelled by the imaginative fervor of your mind, became tools in a breathless campaign to change the shape of the world.”

Las Vegas appears in all its seedy glory in Robert Rosenberg’s “Circus Circus,” where a mother embarks on a frantic quest to find her 4-year-old daughter at a dilapidated casino after her estranged husband, a chronic gambler, loses her there. Connie worked at the cashier’s cage at a casino and had always told herself not to succumb to gamblers’ advances: “I knew I looked prettier on their lucky nights.” But Connie let her guard down once, a misstep that results in a child and marriage to an unreliable man. As their tragicomic search unfolds, Connie realizes the disappearance has been a setup—her husband’s way of forcing her to relieve him of parenting responsibilities.

Another Southwestern woman facing the prospect of single motherhood animates Kirstin Valdez Quade’s masterful “Ordinary Sins.” Crystal is unmarried, pregnant with twins and working in the office of a Catholic church in Santa Fe. Although she has visibly flouted her church’s rules, her stability and compassion keeps it running despite its clashing priests: a fragile but beloved recovering alcoholic and a by-the-book Nigerian “horrified by her messy fecundity” whose stentorian homilies alienate his parishioners.

The lives of some of the West’s essential workers—seasonal guides to the region’s outdoor attractions—are the focus of Corey Campbell’s “Ocean-Friendly Cuisine.” The narrator, Katherine, is part of a two-woman team leading a foreign tour group on a bus through Arches and the Grand Canyon. This peripatetic job suits Katherine, who, in the wake of her mother’s death, “quit marriage and my nursing program and found this desert,” she explains, deriving solace from drifting. Still, she can’t help but seek connection with an appealing widower from Croatia.

A quest for connection unites all these stories thematically, even if many of their characters choose to live in the West precisely because of the solitude its wide-open landscape offers. From an itinerant adjunct professor in Las Cruces in Robin Romm’s “Adulthood,” who fails to resist the comforts of a less-than-ideal relationship, to an older woman in Sierra Bellows’ title story, who tolerates—with disastrous results—her late-in-life paramour’s desire to keep a buffalo calf in his suburban Arizona neighborhood, these characters’ hearts keep getting them into trouble.

But as much as their yearning for one another is the source of many of their failures, their inextinguishable love is, in the end, their triumph.

This piece originally was published in High Country News.

Buffalo Cactus and Other New Stories From the Southwest

Edited by D. Seth Horton and Brett Garcia Myhren

University of New Mexico

296 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

About two-thirds of the way into Carys Davies’ folkloric novel West, the widowed farmer John Cyrus Bellman recalls a riverboat encounter with a Dutch land agent and the agent’s wife. The unpolished farmer offered them a pithy description of his westward journey: “I am seeking a creature entirely unknown, an animal incognitum.”

That declaration is a worthy summary of Davies’ thin novel, which follows Bellman in search of “gigantic monsters” west of the Mississippi River during the early 19th century.

Inspired by a newspaper clipping about “monstrous bones” and “prodigious tusks” unearthed in Kentucky—likely in what is now Big Bone Lick State Park—West follows Bellman as he turns his back on his Pennsylvania farm, leaving his daughter, Bess, in the care of his sister. The novel alternates between Bellman’s westward journey and Bess’ lonely life at home, where, like her father before her, she finds solace in reading about faraway lands at the local library.

Through an arrangement with an entrepreneurial fur trader, Bellman is joined on his journey by a 17-year-old Native American boy, Old Woman From a Distance, whose unnamed tribe has been forced westward through a one-sided agreement with the U.S. government. Though neither speaks the other’s language, the two make for suitable companions, as Bellman barters off his material possessions in exchange for Old Woman’s aid in traversing the landscape. As with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition about a dozen years prior—whose journey is a direct model for Bellman’s quest—Bellman and Old Woman make their way by pirogue and by foot on a steady march into the vast expanse of the American West. If the quixotic Bellman is a dressed-down version of Lewis, then Old Woman is akin to Clark, the able-bodied frontiersman. He is a guide and silent interlocutor to Bellman’s restless wandering.

When Bellman leaves the Dutch couple and their St. Louis-bound boat, the land agent’s wife gently mocks his foolhardy quest—“she’d called after him to say she hoped he’d reached Cognitum before nightfall”—and presumably his use of the Latinate expression. Davies’ novel alludes to the storied genealogy of the animal incognitum in American history. Long before he became president and purchased the Louisiana Territory, Thomas Jefferson—sometimes called the founding father of American paleontology—cultivated an obsession with fossils, particularly those of the American mastodon. For Jefferson, the “animal incognitum,” or mastodon, bore the allure of an untamed and unknown American species. In a letter to French naturalist Bernard Lacépède, Jefferson explained that one of the goals of the Lewis and Clark expedition was to learn about the “Mammoth, and of the Megatherium also”—and, ideally, to find a living specimen.

Bellman has no interest in glory, but he shares a similar pull toward the unknown mysteries and strange creatures of the West: “Now he wondered if it was because it seemed possible that, through the giant animals, a door into the mystery of the world would somehow be opened.” In West, with its frequent references to the Lewis and Clark expedition, Davies reminds us that the search for this particularly elusive species partly inspired the exploration of and scientific excavation of the American frontier.

If there’s a parable of American expansionism in West, its themes are extinction and displacement. In different ways, Bellman and Old Woman have suffered loss (Bellman lost his wife; Old Woman’s sister was killed by American settlers) and displacement. Bellman emigrated with his family from England in search of a better life, while Old Woman’s tribe made a one-sided trade with the federal government to move westward. When we first encounter Old Woman, he sadly recalls “his sister, and everything else they’d left behind in the east—their rivers and their forests and their neat gardens of beans and corn.” Bellman, too, suffers doubts about his decision to leave England with his wife.

Though their circumstances and psychologies are only roughly sketched out, a shared sense of sorrow and loneliness is palpable in the two wanderers. Fortunately, West refuses to indulge in expansionist nostalgia, offering instead a melancholy foray into an ancient American landscape that inspired both exploration and genocide.

Davies herself is Welsh, though she has previously lived in New York and Chicago and worked on this novel as a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. Her work is frequently peripatetic, as in her second collection of short stories, The Redemption of Galen Pike, which wandered from the foothills of Colorado to rural Australia. Here, her writing is less rooted in any specific locale—even as it follows part of the route taken by Lewis and Clark—than it is born of the perennial myth of the Western landscape and the creatures it holds, or in this case, once held. “These strange and unfamiliar creatures,” she writes, “gave Bellman hope and he pressed on.”

Even if its ending is too neat and its mythic overtones a little heavy-handed, West is a compelling document of migration and extinction and a reminder of the complicated history of the American West.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

West: A Novel

By Carys Davies

Scribner

160 pages, $22

Published in Literature

During one of his many visits to the Northwest Territories, Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, was asked by a native elder how long he intended to stay. Before Lopez could respond, the elder, who’d met a journalist or two in his day, grinned and answered his own question. “One day: newspaper story. Two days: magazine story. Five days: book.”

The point was a shrewd one: There is a timeworn tradition of writers traveling to the Canadian Arctic and Alaska to marvel at the land—at its nightless summers, its eccentric inhabitants, its fearsome bears. Jack London spent less than a year in the Klondike. John McPhee based Coming Into the Country on four trips from his home in New Jersey. The fascination of the North stems, in part, from the fact that it’s a damn hard place to visit, much less live in; little wonder that much of its literature is penned by outsiders.

You’re allowed, therefore, some initial skepticism of Kings of the Yukon, whose author, Adam Weymouth, lives, the jacket tells us, “on a Dutch barge in London.” Kings—one part travelogue, one part ethnography, and 10 parts ode to a charismatic fish—recounts a 2,000-mile canoe trip down the Yukon River, from ice-strewn headwaters to sprawling delta. Weymouth’s journey runs countercurrent to the upriver migration of the Yukon’s king salmon: “many pounds of muscle, toned through years of swimming headlong into Pacific storms, and their flesh … red as blood.” These mighty fish give Kings its title and focus—and help its author find, remarkably, something new and insightful to say about the North.

Weymouth’s Yukon fixation began in 2013, a year when just 37,000 king salmon returned to the Yukon—scarcely 10 percent of the historical average. The previous year, 23 Yup’ik fishermen had been arrested for flouting a state fishing ban, a deliberate act of civil disobedience. At their trial, which Weymouth covered for The Atlantic, the defendants noted salmon’s centrality to Yup’ik religion and argued that the First Amendment protected their right to fish. The judge, though sympathetic, slapped each fisherman with a $250 fine.

When Weymouth returns to investigate further in 2016, he finds a culture in slow collapse, fading with its most important resource. Fishing is permitted again, but it’s hardly worth it. Young people have decamped for Alaska and Fairbanks; fish-drying sheds stand derelict. Inside one abandoned cabin, “threadbare curtains blow in the breeze from shattered windows. … The clock is stopped at twenty past four, the calendar stopped at August 2011.”

Although Weymouth explores the science behind the decline’s possible causes—Is it overfishing? Ocean conditions? Climate change?—he is most concerned about its human victims. As he drifts from Dawson City to Emmonak, he meets a parade of Native and white fishermen, whose stories he tells with delicacy and dry humor. There’s Isky, a rapping descendant of Pueblo Indians who wants to make fishing cool for local kids again; Richard, who sardonically narrates bus tours for discomfited New Zealanders; Jim, a caviar-plant operator who goes by Egg Man. Especially memorable is Mary Demientieff, a gregarious Athabascan elder with “family the length of the river, the breadth of the state.” Mary presides over a flagging fish camp, where in the evenings she plays the guitar with “glee, unselfconsciously … laughing and wheezing,” a scene so charming it almost dispels the sadness.

Inevitably, Kings of the Yukon revives some familiar Alaskan tropes: Practically every writer who’s ever encountered a grizzly—including, admittedly, me—has meditated on feeling “conflicted between fear and the privilege of the moment.” (Your anxiety and awe are probably heightened when you come from a country whose largest carnivore is the badger.) Mostly, though, Weymouth’s nature writing is exquisite, even when he’s evoking the unlovely end of a salmon’s cycle: “Its kype is caught in a rictus somewhere between a snarl and a leer, and its gills are clouded with fungus, where it gasps for air as though breathing through cotton wool.” Just as Weymouth acclimates to the rhythms of his voyage, one of Kings’ joys is stretching out in its prose, stately and pleasurable as a flat stretch of river.

While fishing communities have waned, Weymouth finds that another culture has ascended to take their place: reality TV. Half the riverside dwellers he meets, it seems, feature in one of Alaska’s myriad unscripted dramas, from Andy of Life Below Zero to Stan from Yukon Men. “It seems quite possible,” Weymouth writes, “that Alaska has the highest ratio of television celebrities in the world.” Forget salmon—the biggest drivers of Yukon commerce today are National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. If we don’t reverse salmon’s collapse, reality stars might someday be the Yukon’s last kings.

Ben Goldfarb is a frequent contributor to High Country News, where this review first appeared.

Kings of the Yukon

By Adam Weymouth

Little, Brown and Company

288 pages, $27

Published in Literature

Those of us who are ravenous readers of books set in the American West are used to stories of living life on the edge, off the grid, out of the box.

But two new memoirs, both debuts, take isolation and fortitude to a delightful, and at times terrifying, extreme. Both are complex reflections by maverick women directing an honest gaze at their chosen lifestyle and all that it entails.

Rough Beauty starts with great loss: Karen Auvinen escapes the wintry isolation of her Colorado cabin for a day only to return to what looks like a “voluminous orange cloth … forming scarlet and orange ripples that flicked and snapped.” Everything she owns is burned, save her truck. She raises a middle finger to her 40th year and the charred remains of a life, and what follows is a journey of grief, attempts at coping, and a deeper retreat into isolation. We worry for her: She hasn’t been on a date for 20 years, and when she meets a flirtatious waiter in Utah, where she’s gone to recover from the fire, she realizes that “I’d not been touched in years.” Returning home to rebuild her life in another iffy-sounding cabin, she notes, “Neighbors were seasonal or scarce, and that suited me. I just wanted to be left alone.”

Estranged from family, from community, from intimate relationships, from neighbors, she is shockingly detached, her life spare. “Living wild succinctly arranges priorities,” she writes. “You make food, take shelter, stay warm. Seasons and weather dictated every aspect of my day.” It’s appropriate, then, that she finds an abiding comfort in the work of Gretel Ehrlich, whose Solace of Open Spaces is a tribute to the reasons certain people seek such solitude. There is some grace in this: “Anything you do deeply will be lonely,” she notes, quoting Zen master Katagiri Roshi, realizing that, for her, “lonely is a word that describes what it means to live profoundly.”

But this memoir is no simple celebration of solitude—there are very real dangers in choosing such a path. “I’d learned from a very young age to isolate myself from people and from a world that offered up far too many dangerous uncertainties. I thought I was being smart,” Auvinen writes, before eventually realizing that vulnerability is necessary for connection, and connection deepens life. From a childhood that fostered it to the fire that cemented it, we see Auvinen claw her way out of numbness and into real emotion. She finds herself becoming a caregiver for a mother who never gave her much care, finding real love with a canine companion, and experiencing her first panic attack well into middle age—the result of allowing herself to feel emotion. She also heartily engages in community, hosting spunky T.S. Eliot parties, helping when the Jamestown Flood obliterates her town, and then, yes, going on a date and finding a human companion. “Real strength, I’d come to realize, lies not in resistance but in softness,” she writes. “The willingness to go unguarded into a new day.”

Jane Parnell’s memoir bears striking similarities, though her choice for extreme living is mountaineering. By the age of 30, she had become the first woman to climb the 100 highest peaks of Colorado, and she then went on to hike nearly all of the 300 highest. Fifteen to 20 summits a summer, she hiked until the joints in her big toes got dislocated, and her doctor ordered surgery; she hiked until she got cataracts, the result of too much ultraviolet light exposure; she hiked because she had to. “You love the mountains more than you will love any man,” her mother tells her, and indeed, it is the mountains that anchor her during her divorce, grounding her in a life that is otherwise swirling.

Like Auvinen’s book, Off Trail gives sweet attention to the subtle differences that distinguish being alone from loneliness, as well as to the importance of seeking real connection where it matters. “How do I explain that even though I am alone for the first time in my life, I am not alone as they might assume? That this is my belated rite of passage at age 40,” she writes. Guided by frayed topo maps and her dog, and inspired by Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, she hikes on and on. “I want to possess these mountains as they possess me. I want to know everything about them—the density and condition of their forests; the scent and variety of their flowers; the angle, age, and condition of their rock; the size of their summits.”

Neither writer shies away from the difficulties of her particular brand of maverick life: the finances involved in choosing a non-9-to-5-er job; changing gender roles and the particular challenges experienced by women alone in remote areas; the toll that physical activity takes on the body. The lengthy timespans covered by both books offer ample time for introspection and perspective; years of living reveal change. But in the end, both continue to live life like a “river froths at the banks, straining against the confinement of its sinuous canyon,” as Parnell puts it.

These are fearless memoirs, written by women with both a healthy dose of pragmatism and boundless courage.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living

By Karen Auvinen

Scribner

320 pages, $27

Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies

By Jane Parnell

University of Oklahoma Press

144 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

Last winter, at a talk in Aspen, Colorado, author Luis Alberto Urrea described his childhood in a rough San Diego neighborhood near the border, where his family moved from Tijuana during a tuberculosis outbreak.

Born to a Mexican father and an American mother, the blue-eyed, blond child spoke Spanish before he spoke English and spent his early years buffeted by the cultural tensions between his parents.

Urrea’s mother yearned for him to be “Louis Woodward,” the idealized offspring of her own East Coast origins. His father, who wanted his son to be more Mexican, affectionately called him cabrón (in English, “dude,” or a more friendly rendition of “dumbass”). “I was raised twice, and this was very hard, but I thank God for it,” Urrea said.

That complicated family dynamic is the inspiration for his latest novel, The House of Broken Angels, a multigenerational saga about a Mexican-American family, much like his own, in San Diego. It is also a border story, a genre for which he is well-known: Ever since the success of his 2004 nonfiction book, The Devil’s Highway, which recounted the struggle for survival among 26 men who crossed the border in 2001, Urrea has been called the “literary conscience of the border.”

But his latest book is less about the physical border than it is about the familial relationships that both challenge and transcend it—the small moments that, as one of his characters puts it, allow each of us to see our own human lives “reflected in the other.”

Drawing on the final days of Urrea’s older half-brother, Juan, who died in 2016, the narrative revolves around Big Angel, the patriarch of the sprawling De la Cruz clan, a raucous cast of characters who encapsulate a variety of American experiences—veterans, academics, undocumented immigrants, a singer in a black-metal band called Satanic Hispanic and a “non-cisgendered, non-heteronormative cultural liberation warrior.”

Sick with cancer, Big Angel decides to throw a final fiesta for his 71st birthday with all his friends and relatives—and not even his mother’s sudden death will stop him. The party is scheduled for the day after her funeral, and in the lead-up to it, we glimpse the melodrama of daily life amid vivid flashbacks of the past. Like the De la Cruz family, Urrea’s writing is exuberant, unruly and sometimes profane, filled with splashes of Spanglish and sensual imagery, from Big Angel’s San Diego bedroom to his memories of La Paz: “the creeping smell of the desert going wet.”

The writing is political, too, as the author describes the often-arbitrary cruelty of the border that has shaped the characters’ lives. Technically, Big Angel and his wife, Perla, are undocumented, having entered the U.S. as teenagers. Urrea, however, does not dwell on legal status, focusing instead on the ever-changing politics of America’s immigration laws, which have alternately embraced Mexicans for their labor and expelled them as soon as they were no longer needed.

In Big Angel, we see another side of the story, too: the tale of those immigrants who manage to ascend to the middle and working classes. After years of working multiple jobs, Big Angel is able to buy a home in San Diego. He finally lands a position running computers for a gas and electric company, even though he never liked computers. “A Mexican doing what these rich Americanos couldn’t do was the point.”

Other family members have not been so lucky. A stepson, Braulio, was killed in a gang shooting. Big Angel’s own son, Lalo, struggles with drug addiction and his undocumented status, which even his U.S. military service in Iraq cannot resolve.

In the De la Cruz family, these tragedies live next to the frequent bouts of absurdity that Urrea evokes—a reminder, he says, “that people are funny. Especially in dire circumstances.”

Recounting a memory from his own childhood, fictionalized in a chapter of the book, Urrea describes how his “gangster granny” almost became a border smuggler—of a green parrot. Had one bird not awoken from its tequila-induced slumber at the very moment that grandmother and grandsons were about to drive across the border, she might have succeeded. Instead, the parrot erupted from her dress in a burst of green feathers, while the elderly woman calmly rolled down her passenger window. At that moment, Urrea writes, “two Mexican boys, a Mexican grandma, and a U.S. federal agent watched as one as the bird entered the U.S. illegally.”

The author’s humor does not diminish the daily horrors on America’s border; it merely reveals the awfulness more clearly. In Aspen, Urrea explained his choice: “Laughter is the virus that infects humanity. And if we laugh together, how can we walk away and say that person is an animal?”

At a time when the language of borders is more chilling than ever before, with mass deportations and children kept in cages, Urrea hopes more of us will consider this question.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News. Sarah Tory writes from Carbondale, Colo.

The House of Broken Angels

By Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown and Company

336 pages, $27

Published in Literature

Tara Westover’s astonishing debut memoir, Educated, chronicles how she grew up on a southern Idaho mountain in a survivalist Mormon family, never setting foot in school—but eventually earned her doctorate in history from the University of Cambridge.

“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion,” Westover writes. Her father, a charismatic and self-reliant but often unhinged man—imagine Pa Ingalls with a few screws loose—exercises that dominion in myriad ways.

Westover’s father, whom she calls by the pseudonym Gene, limits his interactions with the government and the medical establishment to an extreme: He doesn’t want his kids born in a hospital, issued birth certificates, vaccinated or educated in schools where they could be “seduced by the Illuminati.” He makes a living as a junk dealer, and trains each of his seven kids to perform dangerous work, using metal-cutting machinery with no safety equipment, and hauling sharp and heavy scraps.

In 1992, when Tara is 5, news of the FBI standoff at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho spikes Gene’s paranoia. He stockpiles weaponry and food and builds a hidden bomb shelter. His preparations intensify as Y2K approaches, an event after which he believes “all would sink into chaos, and this would usher in the Second Coming of Christ.” We feel Westover’s sense of perplexity and loss when Jan. 1, 2000, dawns and she looks at her father. “The disappointment in his features was so childlike, for a moment I wondered how God could deny him this.” A less subtle writer might have caricatured or demonized some of these people, but Westover writes with understanding, love and forgiveness.

Gene encourages Westover’s mother to train as a midwife, assisting a woman who “had no license, no certificates,” Westover writes. “She was a midwife entirely by the power of her own say-so.” Westover’s mother eventually becomes a revered midwife and “wise woman,” crafting herbal treatments and essential oils for healing—ultimately launching a business that has become a major community employer by the time Westover heads to college.

Because Gene believes that his wife can heal anything, the Westovers never receive treatment, even for serious accidents and ailments, including hard falls, severe burns, gashes and car crashes. One of Tara’s brothers, whom she calls by the pseudonym Shawn, suffers so many head injuries that it’s tempting to armchair diagnose him with brain trauma; he becomes sadistic and controlling, brutalizing everyone in his orbit, especially women.

Tara’s desire to escape Shawn’s abuse eventually motivates her to pursue college—aided and encouraged by her brother Tyler, who earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering. Brigham Young University accepts homeschooled kids, and Tyler suggests she study for the ACT. Despite learning little beyond how to read and write (the Bible has been her primary textbook), Tara grinds through an ACT prep book and scores high enough to be admitted with a scholarship.

Tara’s initial experiences at Brigham Young are a huge culture shock; it’s as if she had been raised by wolves and then brought into human society. Tara’s roommates are Mormon, but they scandalize her by wearing sweatpants emblazoned with the word “Juicy” on the derriere. She appalls them, in turn, by refusing to wash her hands after using the bathroom, following her father’s instructions.

Westover writes about her studies with extreme humility. She’s never heard of the Holocaust and is flabbergasted to learn that black people didn’t begin to obtain equal rights until 100 years after the Civil War ended. She’s frequently lost in classes and fears failing, yet performs well enough to keep the full scholarship she needs to remain in school. Her professors, struck by the extraordinary quality of her mind, mentor her, eventually boosting her to a scholarship at Cambridge, a fellowship at Harvard University, and a doctorate.

Westover chooses history as her focus. She writes: “What a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others.”

Westover still loves her family and many aspects of their way of life—including the mountain she grew up on, and her singular mother, “that docile woman” who “had a power in her the rest of us couldn’t contemplate.” As Westover becomes increasingly dedicated to seeking the truth, though, a confrontation with her family about Shawn threatens to prompt her expulsion from it.

Whatever Westover’s father may think, his daughter’s life has, in fact, embodied the ideal of individual sovereignty that he modeled. It’s just that her pursuit of self-dominion led her on a quest for knowledge, resulting in a broader perspective than the one offered on the beloved Idaho mountain where she was born. This gorgeous, heartbreaking memoir, the product of the thoughtful reflections of a seeking mind, has the ring of a classic.

This review was originally published in High Country News.

Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover

Random House

352 pages, $28

Published in Literature

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books form some of my earliest literary memories. Reading them—first with my mom and then on my own—sparked my fascination with stories of the past, memories of true-life history fueling my imagination more than fantasy or science fiction.

But history can be hard to pin down, especially when it comes to memories. The personal truths Wilder shared in her best-selling books had a huge influence on our collective cultural memory of the Western frontier, one I never questioned until I dove into Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser’s meticulously researched, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. By exposing the gritty reality behind the cozy, optimistic picture of frontier life presented in Wilder’s books, Fraser makes a compelling case that in their very contradictions—their nostalgic gloss on the pioneer struggle—the Little House books capture the ambiguity of Western identity.

The myth of the self-made pioneer, an archetype that still reigns supreme in the West, is a recurring theme in Fraser’s study of Wilder’s life, which was often a direct rebuttal to the frontier illusion of self-sufficiency. Wilder’s beloved father, Charles Ingalls, never lived up to that ideal; constantly in debt, he shuffled the family from one parched homestead to another, chasing a prosperity always one good harvest out of reach. (Once, while living in Burr Oak, Iowa—a dark interlude not chronicled in Wilder’s books—the entire family split town in the middle of the night, unable to pay their rent.) Like many farmers, the Ingalls family made ends meet by taking odd jobs in town; from the age of 9, the child Laura worked to support her family.

Their poverty was not unique. Countless settlers lured to the Great Plains after the Civil War by promises of free land and fertile soil found nothing but struggle and starvation. Prairie Fires offers a lively chronicle of the history of westward expansion, grounded in the experiences of small farmers. The book links the land booms of the 1870s and 1880s to the Dust Bowl crisis a half-century later, drawing parallels between modern-day climate denial and 19th century refusals to heed warnings that the Plains were unsuitable for farming.

Prairie Fires wrestles with the meaning of self-reliance as it traces the evolution of rural political consciousness in the West. As a middle-aged woman, Wilder, like many of her peers, detested Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal relief programs, insisting that her family endured hardship without handouts. “Not starving, though, was hardly the same thing as succeeding,” Fraser points out—and, in fact, the Ingalls family nearly starved several times. They’d also expected and accepted government help. Charles Ingalls’ Kansas homestead, the setting for Little House on the Prairie, constituted an illegal squat in what was at that time still indigenous land:

His dealings with Indians and implicit reliance on the government—to protect settlers from the consequences of their provocative actions and remove Indians from land he wanted—were self-serving. He was willing … to take something that did not belong to him if he thought he could get away with it.

Even the family’s legitimate land claims in South Dakota cast a shadow of hypocrisy over Wilder’s later disdain for federal assistance. For the hundreds of thousands of people pouring into Dakota Territory, taking advantage of the Homestead Act—which offered free land to anyone who could work it—meant capitalizing on what could be seen as the most large-scale, reckless government program of all time, one that triggered a half-century of violent conflict and brutal struggle for Native Americans and settlers alike.

Prairie Fires explores the narrative liberties Wilder took with her own story without denigrating the series. Even as it points out the omissions and—shall we say—“alternative facts” deployed to keep Little House in line with the wholesome pioneer values Wilder hoped to promote, Prairie Fires acknowledges the simple beauty and raw emotional power of the books, at their best when they tap into the timeless draw of wild spaces. Wilder’s love of nature—the native grasses and flowers of the virgin prairie, the endless takeoff and landing of geese on the shores of Silver Lake—sustained her through a lifetime of privation, and speaks to a paradox Westerners still wrestle with today. Our cultural identity is rooted in that yearning for wild spaces, despite the fact that our very presence makes them less wild. Fraser writes:

The genius of (Little House on the Prairie) lay in that tension between its ostensible pioneer subject—celebrating a destiny made manifest in claiming virgin land … clearing fields, establishing a farm—and its unmistakable appetite for the very opposite.

How do we live on the land we love without changing what we love about it? When does our worship of self-reliance become self-destructive? Deftly weaving together literary criticism and historical analysis, Prairie Fires makes a rich, engaging contribution to our effort to understand our complex history.

This review originally ran in High Country News.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

By Caroline Fraser

Metropolitan

640 pages, $35 hardcover, $22 paperback (slated for release Aug. 7)

Published in Literature

In her poignant memoir Narrow River, Wide Sky, Jenny Forrester unflinchingly shares the gritty details of what she calls her “American trailer trash Republican childhood” in rural Colorado, and the serpentine path she takes to escape the violence that defined her youth.

Most other books on rural poverty published during the rise of Donald Trump have focused on Appalachia or the Deep South (J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash). But Forrester tackles life in the American West.

Forrester was born in the Vail Valley, down valley from the famous ski resort, the daughter of a conservative ski-patroller father and a God-fearing teacher mother. She and her younger brother were frequently subjected to their father’s corporal punishment. Forrester was a delicate, sensitive child, deeply affected by the ruthless way her father dispatched problem kittens, problem birds … problem anything.

Eventually, her mother took the children and left, moving to a trailer in Mancos, Colo., a small town of roughly 1,000 people in the rural southwestern corner of the state.

“Mancos was haven to Mormon fundamentalists and the Second Amendment in cross stitch and engravings and everyone in closets and no privacy and artists as painters of old Western motifs and children of belt-smacking parents and violence as love,” Forrester writes. “Mancos was knowing who’s in town, who’s leaving town, and who’ll never come back. Mancos was wanting more and also wanting nothing to do with the outside world. Mancos was belonging to mythology through genetics or land.”

Forrester refrains from dissecting rural Western poverty, declining to analyze it or draw conclusions. Instead, she lays out the bleak facts of life: Her single mother raised two children in a trailer in a small town. Sometimes, they ran out of food. In Mancos, with its ethos of militant self-sufficiency, there was a stigma about accepting food stamps and other “government handouts.”

The lack of opportunity in places like the Vail Valley and Mancos is especially stark, given their proximity to expensive ski resorts, where the glitterati jet into Vail or Telluride. There’s a Colorado dynamic of ski town versus down valley, Front Range versus Western Slope, along with the broader conflicts that define the West—urban versus rural, city folk versus ranchers. It’s not unlike the dynamic here in the Coachella Valley, where some of the poorest parts of California are just a short drive away from the riches of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells and La Quinta.

“We were always facing drought—fire on the roadside; parched, dead animals; dust because of Denver and industry and pollution and all of the other people living on the Front Range, east of the Continental Divide. They always had to have enough. There were more of them. That’s how we saw it,” Forrester writes. “That Continental Divide splits Colorado in so many ways.”

Forrester and her brother, Brian, drift apart ideologically as they age, almost despite themselves. They embody the nationwide trend of the past three decades, with its drastically polarized political and cultural landscape. Jenny embraces feminism and moves from small-town Mancos to Phoenix and then Portland, Ore. Brian marries into a Western Slope ranching family and is born again as a Baptist, beginning a travelling ministry with his wife. Jenny and Brian’s wife have a family-straining blowout argument over abortion and religion.

Though Forrester doesn’t shy from those taboo subjects—religion and politics—Narrow River, Wide Sky is just as much about the struggles women face while simply living: sexual assault, peer pressure, drug use, depression and death.

Ultimately, she’s writing about violence against women. A young vegetarian is forced to go on hunting expeditions so her mom’s boyfriends can use her hunting tag. Boys demand sex but won’t wear condoms. There’s the violence of an abortion without money for painkillers, the fear of stalker ex-boyfriends—slapping and punched walls, textbooks slammed on the floor at school. Through it all, Forrester doggedly survives. Her resilience and hope shine from the pages. Her fiery spirit comes through her spare, deliberate prose.

Her husband takes her to the Salt River outside Phoenix, and she has a revelation:

We sat listening to the water between the stones and along the sand. I started to remember again rivers and where I’d come from after spending so much time and emotion on forgetting what I’d been and learned and forgetting what I’d fought against without knowing why. I’d been pushing memory away. … The Salt River, a stream most of the time in the Sonoran Desert, whispered to me to return to the source of what no drug, no man, no circumstance can kill.

But in the end, Forrester leaves the Southwest, walking away from juniper and piñon pine, from rusty rainbow-colored mesas and the Milky Way shining in the clear night sky. She flows away from the waters of the Dolores, is washed clean in the waters of the Salt, and comes to rest in the crisp clear waters where the Willamette and the Columbia meet under tall Northwest pines. No matter how deep the trauma, no matter how long it has lasted, it is possible to be cleansed and start anew.

This review originally ran in High Country News.

Narrow River, Wide Sky: A Memoir

By Jenny Forrester

Hawthorne

237 pages, $18.95

Published in Literature

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