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When she discovered that she was pregnant, Stephanie Land ripped up her application for the University of Montana’s creative-writing program. Yet her dream of being a writer in Missoula endured, shining like a beacon above the daily grind of poverty she now found herself trapped in as a single mother.

She yearned for Missoula, a laid-back, picturesque college town, but knew that good-paying jobs there were hard to come by, and housing costs were disproportionately high. She told herself that, once in Montana, she could reinvent herself and set an example for her daughter by becoming “the person I expected myself to be.”

But it would be years before Land managed to escape. Her debut memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, takes place mostly in Washington’s Skagit County, a rural area north of Seattle. Like many of its Western counterparts, it suffers from the ripple effects of a nearby big city’s lack of affordability without any of the benefits of urban living—reliable public transportation and a geographic concentration of jobs and amenities—that can help offset housing costs.

Land gives little more than a paragraph to her decision to have a child, and it can be tempting for the reader to judge her choices. But Land’s openness highlights the injustice of our culture’s eagerness to criticize the personal decisions of poor people, particularly of women. (How many women are judged equally harshly for not having children?) Poor women have it especially hard; at least their more privileged sisters have a chance of keeping their private lives private. It’s often only the maid who sees the struggles they hide from the world.

Land’s intimate first-person perspective sets Maid apart from other nonfiction about poverty in America. Readers who have never lived close to the poverty line or navigated the maze of public-assistance programs will have their eyes opened by Land’s careful breakdowns of her household budget and her maddening dealings with bureaucracy. A sense of deep loneliness often left her aching for a normal life, for the person she used to be or could have become. “I was starved for kindness,” she tells us. “I was hungry for people to notice me, to start conversations with me, to accept me. I was hungry in a way I’d never been in my entire life.”

Land experiences the invisibility common to poor people in America: Cleaning houses, she works like a ghost in homes while the owners are away; in the waiting rooms of government offices, she is nothing but a number in the system; when she buys groceries with her EBT card, customers and cashiers dismiss her as just another lazy food-stamp recipient. But in other settings, her poverty itself is invisible: “People I talked to rarely assumed I needed food stamps to survive, and they always said ‘those people’ in conversations. Yet ‘those people’ were never people like me. They were immigrants, or people of color, or the white people who were often referred to as trash. When people think of food stamps, they don’t envision someone like me … someone like a neighbor. Someone like them.”

With 42 million people—about one in eight Americans—currently receiving food stamps, there’s a good chance many of them are your neighbors; maybe you’re one of them. Under President Donald Trump’s proposed 2020 budget, nearly a million people would lose their food stamps altogether, and almost everyone would see their benefits reduced. The budget guts several other programs that were vital to Land and her daughter’s survival: housing vouchers, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Medicaid. In showing how much poor people rely on these programs to survive, Land exposes the injustice of a rigged economic system that uses government assistance as both a political football and a bandage for systemic inequality.

“My paychecks made me feel like I didn’t work at all,” Land writes. She’s not alone: Today’s low unemployment rate obscures the number of Americans joining the ranks of the working poor. Of the 58 percent of adult workers who receive hourly wages, one-third earn less than $12 an hour, and nearly half make less than $15. Land made $9 an hour cleaning houses, and took home only about half that after the cost of the gas it took to get to work.

Many Westerners live in the places we do because of a strong sense of shared values: access to open space, investment in local economies, vibrant creative culture, the perpetual promise of starting over. But the growth of inequality in these sought-after communities threatens to destroy that promise for more and more of our neighbors. Maid invites us into one of the real lives hidden behind the statistics, prompting us to consider what this loss of opportunity means, both for our communities and our collective conscience.

Claire Thompson is a freelance writer based in Montana. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive

By Stephanie Land

Hachette

288 pages, $27

Published in Literature

When your homestead in the Colorado Rockies is threatened by wildfire, it’s easy to believe you have a front-row seat at the Apocalypse. In her recent memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, novelist and essayist Pam Houston sees the disaster of climate change already unfolding at her ranch, but finds strength and solace in the practical work involved in protecting her land, her animals and the wild landscape they share.

Houston—the author of several books, including the short-story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness and the novels Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound—is an acerbic and self-deprecating writer. She often focuses on women who are competent in navigating the natural world but can’t handle romance with the hard-earned skill they bring to, say, white-water rafting.

The essays in Deep Creek examine the life Houston has created at her 120-acre southern Colorado homestead at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, “the only real home” she ever had. It’s a place she shares with various horses, donkeys, Irish wolfhounds and Icelandic sheep. As a professor of English at UC Davis, Houston has had to spend much time away from it, leading writing workshops. Deep Creek recounts her struggles to remain emotionally connected to the ranch and its inhabitants, even as her career compels her to grapple with the challenges of the outside world.

Houston writes candidly of her childhood in “The Tinnitus of Truth Telling” and “Retethering,” recalling how she was raised by two dangerous and abusive alcoholics, who between them managed to wreck 16 cars before Houston had her own learner’s permit.

Houston was desperate to find the kind of sanctuary offered by her ranch, a place of breathtaking beauty, seeking a sense of rootedness and protection lacking in her chaotic upbringing. She doesn’t dismiss the challenges and heartbreaks of rural life, but in “The Season of Hunkering Down,” “Mother’s Day Storm” and other essays, she conveys the merits of choosing an existence closer to nature.

The physical world gives her everything she needs for storytelling, Houston writes. She feels a “glimmer” as she goes through her day, “a little charge of resonance that says, ‘Hey, writer, look over here.’” As she notes, it is “my method, the way I have written every single thing I have written, it is also the primary way I worship, the way I kneel down and kiss the earth.”

Each chapter is followed by a “Ranch Almanac” entry, usually focused on her animals, from the poop-strewing habits of the mini-donkeys to the obstreperous antics of the chickens. These snapshots convey the everyday pleasures and challenges of living in a remote location.

The collection’s dramatic centerpiece is “Diary of a Fire,” an account of the conflagration that nearly consumed her home in 2013. Houston was teaching in Oregon throughout much of it, and her anxiety at not being there to protect her animals and buildings is palpable.

Now she can see the humor in her attempts to reach Portland’s airport with a volunteer driver who admits, “I’m way too scared to drive on the highway!” Vivid scene-setting is part of the book’s charm, along with Houston’s ability to juggle humor and pathos.

The piece is sprinkled with U.S. Forest Service fire terminology, which becomes a kind of poetry of competence—words employed in the face of monumental technical challenge. After record Western wildfires and more to come, the terminology feels more relevant than ever. Climate change will make us all revise our language of the cataclysmic.

Houston’s ranch survived, and Houston glimpses a silver lining in her experience: “Scary as it was, there wasn’t a single day in the West Fork Fire that wasn’t deeply interesting.”

Like a lot of nonfiction published in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Deep Creek contains its share of grief, anger and pain. Houston writes, “We are all dying, and because of us, so is the earth. … But it isn’t dead yet, and neither are we.”

As the book progresses, its tone lightens. Houston writes of the kindnesses received, and moments of danger averted by strangers “who have come through for me when I trusted them with my life.” She visits Alaska and witnesses a narwhal migration, “as magical a thing as will happen to me in my lifetime.” After the intensity of “Diary of a Fire,” the shift is welcome.

Deep Creek is genuinely uplifting and positive, with its author aware of life’s darkness, but determined not to let it immobilize her. With humor and insight, she shows a way past sorrow and into grace, for humans and animals alike.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News. Michael Berry is a freelance writer based in Berkeley.

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country

By Pam Houston

W.W. Norton

288 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature

At a 1969 celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad, 2,000 miles of track that linked the Central Pacific Railroad to the Eastern rail network, Transportation Secretary John Volpe crowed: “Who else but Americans could drill tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?”

Volpe was apparently unaware that the Chinese workers who actually did the drilling were barred from obtaining U.S. citizenship.

A new book from Stanford University historian Gordon Chang confronts this amnesia. Ghosts of Gold Mountain seeks to give long-overdue acknowledgement to the 20,000 Chinese laborers who built the railroad’s Western section. Thousands died crossing the Sierra Nevada, and the railroad companies paid the Chinese workers far less than their white counterparts. Released earlier this month, days before the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s completion—which occurred May 10, 1869—the book is the most comprehensive account to date of the lives of the Chinese workers who built the railroad.

An American history professor and fourth-generation Californian, Chang has a personal stake in this story. Leland Stanford, his university’s founder, was a railroad industry tycoon who considered the Chinese workers “an inferior race.”

“That was part of my motivation,” Chang said. “It kept me going through the hard work to know that this story was close to home. I wanted people at Stanford—and everybody—to know about it. There’s so much history glorifying him, but that’s only part of the story.”

I recently spoke to Chang, who wants the Chinese railroad workers recognized as vital figures in the history of the West’s development.

What did the research on the Chinese railroad workers look like before your book?

Other historians described the scale of the work, perhaps, or the numbers, or where they labored, but because they wrote about the Chinese mainly as people observed, there was little vitality in the descriptions and little sense of what the Chinese might have experienced. And you know, in most of written history, there’s a preference or pattern, certainly—maybe unconsciously—of assuming the point of view of the well-known people, the leaders, the bigwigs, the capitalists and the politicians, because they leave so much of their own material behind. We don’t have that with the Chinese, and that requires a very different kind of historical effort.

That was one of the more striking aspects of the book, to me—the depth of detail on the workers’ lives. Can you say more about what they endured?

The Sierras are largely granite. To build a railroad through those mountain passes at 7,000 or 8,000 feet, and then to carve tunnels out of granite at those elevations, is a particularly daunting challenge. All the construction work was completed using basically hand tools: chisels, shovels, picks and blasting powder for the tunnels. They’d use chisels and sledgehammers to dig holes into the rock and stuff it full of powder, and blow out big cracks in the rock and then chisel and hammer out the rest. It was really backbreaking, numbing, bone-breaking work.

One chapter focuses on the worker strike of 1867, the biggest of the time. You present it as a forgotten moment in the history of American labor and an important instance of worker solidarity. How should we remember the impact of that strike?

The strike is, like so much of the Chinese railroad history, not included in many accounts of the railroad, nor (is it) in most of the accounts of American labor history. Many labor history books are written by people sympathetic to workers, but it’s curious that most of them don’t mention the strike at all, including famous works by (Selig) Perlman and (Philip) Foner and others. You’d think they would like to celebrate this moment of solidarity.

It’s remarkable that 3,000 workers in 1867 could take such coordinated action—spread out along miles of the track—in the face of isolation. But they did, to the shock of the employers, who had no inkling of this until it happened.

Contrary to views that Chinese are servile and passive, the strike was anything but those things.

You take care to emphasize the achievement in building the railroad. Do you see this as a story of heroism as well?

This is a story of sacrifice, of suffering, of tragedy, but also of heroism. This is a heroic endeavor and accomplishment. They didn’t brag about it, but I feel like I can brag for them today. They should be acknowledged for their extraordinary effort, even if they may not have thought of themselves as heroic at the time. They just thought there was work to be done. They were just working hard, suffering and hoped to get through it alive.

Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News, where this piece first appeared.


Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

By Gordon H. Chang

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

320 pages, $28

Published in Literature

A big tree can seem monolithic and solitary—several armspans of girth, a towering crown. Trees, though, are often part of a community. Through a network of roots and fungal threads, they can warn each other of danger and even feed a lopped stump. They nourish and house countless creatures, which nourish them in turn.

Trees, in other words, embody the power of relationships to sustain life. And forming a relationship with trees, two books by first-time authors suggest, can lead people to help do the same on a grand scale—from stumping on behalf of old-growth temperate rainforests, to fighting climate change.

Journalist Harley Rustad centers his exploration of this theme on an unlikely catalyst: a single logger meeting a single Douglas fir. Dennis Cronin was marking a grove for harvest in 2011 when he came upon the giant tree—217 feet tall. On impulse, he wrapped it with a ribbon that spared it as the rest of the trees fell. So was born Big Lonely Doug, a nickname that Rustad adopts as the title of his book—a sweeping natural and human history of logging on Canada’s Vancouver Island, and the movement to save its vastly diminished woods.

As Rustad’s protagonist and carefully researched prose show, the battle lines in such fights are rarely clear. The Pacheedaht First Nation both defends its ancient forests and logs parts of them for the economic benefit of its people. The loggers who worked the region’s forests, meanwhile, became as familiar with them as any treehugger. The trees’ size and steep footing meant that they could only be cut by hand with saws. And in this closeness, some loggers came to revere them.

Environmental groups built trails and marketing campaigns around the last giants standing in an effort to help average citizens understand the stakes, winning protections in the process, but also alienating First Nations by acting without regard for their deep knowledge of place. Ironically, Cronin’s fir gives conservationists their perfect icon: An astounding tree, marooned in a blast zone of stumps.

Rustad’s book is more of a nuanced explanation than a call to action, though the implication is clear: The intimacy of direct experience draws people to act.

Scientist Lauren Oakes picks up this thread from a more tender vantage and takes it further in the direction of advocacy. Her book, In Search of the Canary Tree, blends research and memoir, chronicling her own quest to understand global climate change through a single species, the Alaska yellow-cedar.

Other researchers found that the trees were paradoxically freezing to death at lower elevations because of rising temperatures; spring frosts burn their shallow roots as insulating snowpack vanishes. So for her doctorate, Oakes documents what happens to some Southeast Alaska forests after their yellow-cedars die, and how people respond. Though occasionally bogged down in detailed scientific processes, Oakes is lovely and lyrical in her fieldwork descriptions, and her interweaving of ecological and personal loss.

With the help of some tenacious techs, including Kate “Maddog” Cahill, whose illustrations grace the book, Oakes thrashes through the rainy woods of Chichagof Island and Glacier Bay National Park, gathering data, falling into a treewell, talking down a grizzly. Each night, she backs out of her sodden clothes and into her tent, and each morning, she climbs back into their moldering embrace. She and her crew are so hungry at the end of their first two-week stint that when they return to town, Cahill bursts into tears over an omelet.

Through the coming seasons, a picture edged with complicated hope emerges. Saplings are alarmingly sparse, and the study forecasts a grim future for still-healthy yellow-cedars, but a different forest is growing up around the dead, one dominated by Western hemlock.

As Oakes prepares to interview Alaskans who use yellow-cedar to see how they reckon with this change, her father dies suddenly in his sleep. In her grief, she finds insight in her subjects’ answers—people like Tlingit weaver Teri Rofkar, who advocates giving the trees a break even from harvesting bark traditionally used in yarn. The loggers who experiment with cutting standing dead yellow-cedar instead of live trees. The ecologists who commit to telling the story of change. In the end, she finds resilience and new growth here too, beyond the pain—an opening for healing, for new possibilities, for action.

A Tlingit weaver named Ernestine Hanlon-Abel tells Oakes a story that sums it up well. It’s about a man running for office, who comes to see her father. “See how the mountains are? A lot of avalanches, huh?” Hanlon-Abel’s father asks the man. “You’re gonna have to learn how to hold hands the way those trees do. … They send out all these roots, and … pretty soon, the avalanches aren’t gonna be able to … wipe it out. That’s your job. To hold hands.”

In this time of environmental crises, these books imply, maybe holding hands with each other, and with other species, is our job, too. To learn to connect differently with the growing world. To move beyond “natural resource,” as Rofkar tells Oakes, to “relationship.”

Sarah Gilman writes and draws from Portland, Ore.. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Hakai Magazine, BioGraphic, Adventure Journal Quarterly and others. She was a staff and contributing editor at High Country News, where this review first appeared, for 11 years.

Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees

By Harley Rustad

House of Anansi Press

328 pages, $18.95

In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World

By Lauren E. Oakes

Basic Books

288 pages, $27

Published in Literature

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

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