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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

As a child in Los Angeles, I watched European starlings bathe in gutter puddles. I admired their gleaming feathers and quick bright eyes.

Field guides and birdwatchers say starlings perch on the lowest rung of the ornithological ladder, thanks to their tendency to invade both cities and fragile habitats, pushing out native birds and decimating farmers’ crops. But I didn’t know that then. In ignorance, I marveled.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a starling, purchased for a few coins in a Viennese pet shop; he kept it as a companion and—possibly—a muse. The unlikely relationship between musical genius and avian pariah has been the subject of essays, public-radio features and now Mozart’s Starling, a work of literary nonfiction by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. A Seattle-based naturalist, Haupt tells three stories in her newest book—a trio of deftly interwoven tales that point toward a new way of seeing species we long ago learned to revile.

As in her previous works of nonfiction, Crow Planet and The Urban Bestiary, Haupt asks us—gently and with contagious delight—to reconsider the animals we disparage. Listen to her, and even the most pedestrian walkways sing out with possibility. Starlings—like house sparrows and raccoons and nutria—are here to stay despite our best efforts to eradicate them. These familiar birds are a gateway creature, if you will, allowing almost anyone, anywhere, to become acquainted with and attuned to a species other than ours.

Haupt begins with Mozart, describing how the composer discovered the bird, unaccountably whistling a motif from a piano concerto of his that had not yet been publicly performed. Haupt delves into this mystery and others, armed with history and science. She journeys to Vienna and the Mozarthaus, where the composer and his family lived between 1784 and 1787, to see for herself the rooms made sweeter by the presence of a species with an extraordinary capacity for song.

European starlings, Haupt explains, are natural mimics. “It is a surprise to most contemporary Americans that starlings can talk, that they are gifted mimics of environmental sounds, other birds, music, and the human voice,” she writes. And they’ve managed to spread across North America and around the globe.

The second story in the book is her own—the entertaining tale of how Haupt, a former wildlife rehabilitator, and her husband, Tom Furtwangler, snatched a baby starling from a nest in a Seattle park before city exterminators arrived. They nurtured the hatchling and raised it to adulthood, a process Furtwangler captured in whimsical black-and-white photos. With a rehabber’s necessary wit, she recounts stories of the bird nestling in her cleavage, pooping in her hair, vanishing and being found at last, having flown into the refrigerator.

The third story in the book belongs to this starling. Carmen, as Haupt calls her, represents a smart and resourceful species. While the author acknowledges that starlings can become undeniable pests, her charming stories of this particular bird remind us that perhaps—since the species isn’t going away any time soon—we might as well learn to live in harmony with it. “I do detest the presence of the species in North America,” she writes. “But this bird on my shoulder? Mischievous, clever, disorderly, pestering, sparkling, sleepy? Yes, I confess, I couldn’t be more fond of her.”

Haupt’s book is the latest addition to an unusual subgenre. Over the past quarter-century, authors have penned shelves full of books about sharing their home with a wild bird: Bernd Heinrich’s One Man’s Owl, Martin Windrow’s The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, Robbyn Smith van Frankenhuyzen’s Adopted by an Owl, and the late Oregon author Chris Chester’s magnificent Providence of a Sparrow. Like Chester, Haupt shows how, by studying a creature long regarded as a nuisance, we may cultivate a gracious appreciation for the ordinary and the inevitable.

Her portrayal of Carmen returns to me something that’s been missing for decades: a receptive respect for the wild creatures that were available in my cement and asphalt childhood. Who are any of us to say, really, that a California condor glimpsed on a backpacking trip or a resplendent quetzal spotted on a Costa Rican tour has more innate worth than a bird possessed of more than 30 song types—one resourceful enough to exist on dumpster crumbs and bathe in urban gutters?

“(Carmen) became the teacher, the guide, and I became an unwitting student—or more accurately, a pilgrim, a wondering journeyer who had no idea what was to come,” Haupt writes. “It led me to the understanding that there is more possibility in our relationships with animals—with all the creatures of the earth, not just the traditionally beautiful or endangered, or loved—than I had ever imagined.”

This piece was originally published in High Country News.

Mozart’s Starling

By Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Little, Brown

288 pages, $27

Published in Literature

In June 1966, a full-page advertisement appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, warning readers: “Now Only You Can Save Grand Canyon From Being Flooded … For Profit.”

David Brower, the Sierra Club’s executive director, was blasting two proposed dams that would have backed up the Colorado River into Grand Canyon National Park. The attack sounds tame in our vitriolic era, but it triggered such an unprecedented wave of anti-dam letters to Congress that the Internal Revenue Service revoked the club’s tax-exempt status as a nonpolitical organization. When dam-backers argued that a reservoir would make it easier to admire the canyon, Brower’s next ad notoriously asked, “Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer the Ceiling?” By summer’s end, his public relations barrage had killed the huge project.

In The Man Who Built the Sierra Club, Robert Wyss details how Brower transformed the club from a modest Pacific Coast hiking network into America’s most-prominent environmental organization, in the process elevating the conservation movement into a national political force. Wyss portrays a true believer who fought relentlessly to protect the natural world. He succeeded, Wyss says, “because he made people care.” And he did so by becoming a deft public-relations pioneer.

Born in 1912 in Berkeley, Calif., Brower discovered the Sierra Club through mountain climbing. (He made 130 first ascents.) He honed his rhetorical skills leading the club’s popular 1930s backcountry outings, playing his accordion and telling campfire stories.

After serving in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division during World War II, Brower became the Sierra Club’s first-ever executive director. His tenure, from 1952 through 1969, marked the country’s most successful environmental protection achievements, and Brower’s outreach was essential, starting with his campaign against a proposed dam in Dinosaur National Monument in the 1950s. Brower inspired supporters through short films and an oversized book of panoramic photographs. At a time when color TV and interstate highways were novelties, Brower presented vivid and breathtaking scenes of remote natural landscapes few had visited, countering claims the region was a wasteland.

The films, screened from garden clubs to the Capitol, were “the most important thing we did in offsetting the Bureau of Reclamation’s propaganda,” Brower said. The book, edited by Wallace Stegner, launched Sierra Club’s signature coffee-table book series. “(Brower) had created a new genre, an expensive, sprawling book that openly touted an environmental message,” Wyss writes. His films, books and ads not only boosted membership; they helped protect Redwoods and North Cascades national parks and pass the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Those campaigns, Wyss writes, showed how environmental and advocacy groups could use media and public relations “in a way never seen before to win over sympathizers and outrage opponents.” Brower, however, always regretted the compromise that spared Dinosaur, since it led to the damming of the Colorado River and the creation of Lake Powell. Eventually, he opposed nearly all development.

His no-compromise message and natural charisma made Brower a hero on 1960s and 1970s college campuses. He gave what he called “The Sermon” hundreds of times, asking listeners to imagine the Earth’s 4-billion-year geologic history as an abbreviated six-day creation tale. If humans arrived on Earth just minutes before the end of the sixth day, he said, then the Industrial Revolution started 1/40th of a second before midnight, vividly symbolizing our brief but massive impact on the planet. “Brower was the evangelist, the apostle, the messiah,” Wyss writes, “drawing the young, who would become pilgrims to the cause.”

Brower’s fiery stubbornness would also be his undoing. As director, Brower publicly contradicted the Sierra Club’s support for California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, and later published new books without board approval. In 1969, Sierra Club leaders forced his resignation. Brower started other environmental groups and later reconciled with the Sierra Club, but he never again wielded the same power. He died in 2000, at the age of 88. Wyss laments Brower’s downfall, and argues the conservation movement still suffers from “a leadership vacuum.”

Today, cable news and social media allow people to instantaneously spread information and communicate with officials. Environmentalists still buy newspaper ads, give campus presentations and publish photography books. They also Snapchat, fire off email blasts and give TED talks. This past spring, Patagonia Inc. launched a virtual-reality-enabled multimedia website to defend Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which the Trump administration has since slated for a massive reduction. The website allows a visitor to listen to a Hopi archaeologist talk about Bears Ears’ cultural significance while scrolling around 360-degree views of slot canyons and rock art, as if on a hike. It’s a novel and evocative online experience, even without VR glasses, and the site is still gaining nationwide attention and support for the monument. As you click through the scenes, you see the digital legacy of David Brower’s PR successes—a sermon still being preached.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower

By Robert Wyss

Columbia University Press

400 pages, $35

Published in Literature

In Idaho, the elegant, contemplative debut novel by Idaho-raised Boise State University assistant professor Emily Ruskovich, two sisters play a game in a meadow. If you “hold a buttercup under someone’s chin” and it “makes a yellow glow,” that indicates the person has a secret.

“The chins always glow yellow,” Ruskovich writes. “That’s the trick: There’s always a secret. Everyone has something she doesn’t want told.”

That’s certainly true of the characters in Ruskovich’s novel, as well as in Jon Raymond’s Freebird. Both books are set in the West and explore the aftermath of violence, though they do so in very different families.

In Idaho, Ann, a piano teacher in the northern part of the state, tries to unravel the mystery behind her husband Wade’s first wife, Jenny, who had killed her youngest daughter nine years earlier. Her older daughter then fled into the woods, never to be found. Wade suffers from early onset dementia, an affliction that is causing his personality to disintegrate even as it erodes the painful memories Ann is so keen to unearth.

Violence and forgetting are also at the heart of Freebird (now out in hardback, and coming out in paperback in January), the engaging fourth book by Portland, Oregon-based novelist and screenwriter Jon Raymond. The Singer family patriarch, Grandpa Sam, is a Jewish Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Oakland from Poland after his traumatic youth, about which he never speaks. Sam’s daughter, Anne, wants to settle him in a nursing home, but frugal Sam resists, so until a better option appears, Aaron, Anne’s teenage son, looks after him.

Aaron, who lacks direction, is considering eschewing college to bum around Mexico with a buddy. At the same time, he’s touchingly focused on learning about his grandfather’s mysterious past. Meanwhile, Anne, a single mom who works for the Los Angeles Office of Sustainability, uncharacteristically steps into a shady business venture in the hopes of funding Aaron’s education. Her brother, Ben, is an ex-Navy SEAL struggling to reintegrate in society after decades as a soldier, a career he chose partly in response to his father’s awful history.

The novels couldn’t be more different in tone—Idaho is mournful and oblique, while Freebird is forceful and direct, by turns comic and angry. Idaho takes place largely on one remote mountain, while Freebird roams the urban West, often set amid the tangle of California’s highways. Idaho is lulling in its rhythms and gorgeous imagery, while Freebird throws a glass of cold water in its readers’ faces, alerting them to government-sponsored violence and graft. Ben thinks, “This placid American life is not what it seems. It is in fact as fragile as a soap bubble, an aberration of history, and all these people … exist in their comfort only because their world is ringed with far-off sentries.”

As distinct as the two novels are, they both explore how people go on living when their pasts are shadowed by unspeakable violence.

In Ann, Ruskovich has created a striking, open-hearted protagonist, a woman who was not even present during the murder the book cycles around. She first got to know Wade when he started taking piano lessons from her several months before his family tragedy. Their mutual affection grows, and Ann insists on marrying Wade despite his dementia, the same disease that killed his father.

“I could take care of you,” she offers. As Wade’s condition deteriorates, he disciplines Ann as he would one of the dogs he trains for a living, pushing her head down and shouting, “No!” whenever one of her inadvertent actions stirs up a memory connected to his lost family.

Ruskovich’s depiction of Wade’s dementia is the strongest aspect of the book. “Together, Ann and Wade sit on the piano bench,” she writes. “She turns the pages, which every week grow simpler and simpler. One week, he’s playing both hands together. The next week, he struggles on a children’s song, with only his right hand. Slowly, as the weeks go by and the weather turns cold, she turns the pages backward.”

As Ruskovich switches perspectives and jumps around in time, the motivations of some of the characters remain frustratingly murky. There’s never a clear explanation of why Jenny deliberately murdered her child, nor is it clear why everyone in the book walks on eggshells around the now-incarcerated woman, careful not to speak of her crime. When a person does something so horrific, her own feelings are usually the last concern. Which perhaps is Ruskovich’s point: In Idaho, she has concerned herself with the kind of person that society would typically toss away and never think of again. Through her characterization of Ann, Ruskovich has embodied radical love and forgiveness.

Raymond, too, forces us to bear witness to people like Ben, the off-kilter veteran turned soldier-of-fortune, as his actions begin to defy morality and the law. He makes us contemplate the role we’ve all played in creating such damaged veterans.

Both Idaho and Freebird will awaken readers to the painful idea that our lives are shaped by a legacy of violence, no matter who we are. This is a difficult truth to face, but if we want to survive as a society, we need to confront it head-on.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Idaho

By Emily Ruskovich

Random House

336 pages, $17

Freebird

By Jon Raymond

Graywolf Press

336 pages, $26

Published in Literature

At some point last August in Montana, Missoula County’s daily air quality updates—peppered with chatty jokes about the apocalyptic sky outside the windows and wry recommendations to avoid outdoor exercise—stopped being funny.

The gray miasma that had covered the city lost its novelty, though the fantastic sunscapes—the sharp evening shadows by early afternoon, and the ominous beauty that the poetically inclined find in destruction—lingered. Unfortunately, the blanket of gritty air did, too.

Many parts of Southern California have experienced similar air quality over the past few weeks … but you knew that already.

All the commiserating small talk with grocery-store cashiers and detailed explanations of what we were breathing and where it came from could not lift the pall, figuratively or literally. Smoke—plumes of it streaking across satellite maps—became all too familiar, even as the fires that spouted it threatened evacuations and stressed budgets to breaking.

Edward Struzik’s new book, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, describes so many North American conflagrations that they, too, begin to seem almost ordinary, as the fires seemingly burn bolder every day—just another of climate change’s many Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Struzik guides readers through the ecological, social and political factors that led to the major fires of recent decades, including the century of fire suppression that built up fuel; the changing conditions that spin fires into furies; and the inconsistent policy preparations across vast and varied fire-prone regions. The book is part prognosis, part play-by-play, and part resigned admission that as much as we know, or think we know, about how to live under perpetual threat of ever-greater disasters, nothing about future fires is guaranteed—except that they will come galloping.

The far-flung points on Struzik’s map deliver the book’s most searing message: No forest, no fire, is isolated. Story after story delivers a similar account: the lucky turns of weather versus unexpected fire behavior, and the constant complaints about inadequate resources. The research showing the global travels of smoke plumes makes the point on a molecular level, too. Mercury, arsenic, carbon, asbestos—what once was buried will be unearthed, and once it is unearthed, there is no wall to stop its spread.

Firestorm opens with the Horse River Fire, nicknamed “the Beast,” a 2016 runaway wildfire near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, that burned 2,800 homes and nearly 1.4 million acres. It consumed billions of dollars and surprised firefighters at nearly every turn, and the fact that almost everyone living nearby escaped was more miracle than management. Struzik compares the fire to a hurricane or a tornado—with the stark difference that people in a tornado’s path rarely think they can stop it.

The contrast between the extraordinary power of megafires and people’s belief in their own ability to contain them is striking. Arrogance, ignorance, careless chance—people start fires and underestimate them, ignore humbling lessons and moving closer to danger. Instead of being seen as a crucial part of integrated ecological cycles, wildfires become overwhelming, menacing, supernatural.

Struzik punctures much of the mystery by explaining soil cycles and water pollution, funding and smoke particulates. In chapters that connect science to history, he offers a clear view of what has happened and what’s at stake. But his elaborate retellings of what happened during specific fire events over the last century lose clarity in all the chaotic play-by-plays of phone calls, weather patterns and evacuation orders. Timelines get tangled; contextual asides intrude at key moments and are then left dangling. For a reader intimately familiar with these fires, the level of detail may offer some insight. But those more interested in the future, readers left to make the larger connections on their own.

The thread that weaves through every chapter is clear, however. Megafires—whether seen as natural disasters, nightmarish calamities or policy mismanagement in action—will continue. They will become worse and more frequent. The wildland-urban interface will be more threatened. That thick summer air (and, as we know in Southern California, the fall and winter air, too) will return to block out sunlight and push us back indoors to clutch our air filters and grouse about stolen blue-sky days. Struzik reminds his readers again and again that whatever has happened already, no matter how severe and stunning, isn’t done happening.

It’s clear how huge of a role humans have had in getting us here. The question left unanswered is how we might cope with what happens next.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future

By Edward Struzik

Island Press

272 pages, $30

Published in Literature

Stanley Crawford defies most of the stereotypes of a “Western American writer.”

The Dixon, N.M.-based author is more likely to wear sandals than cowboy boots. He owns a pickup truck, but his automotive passion is for working on impractical yet dapper vintage European cars; his most recent project was the restoration of a 1984 Citroen Deux Chevaux. His latest aspiration is to compete in the 2018 Brompton World Championship, a decorous folding-bike race held every summer in St. James’ Park, in London, at which gentlemen are required to wear a jacket, shirt and tie.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the glee he takes in flouting the usual image of a Western writer, Crawford has earned a reputation as one of the most original and incisive authors writing about the region today. His memoirs Mayordomo and A Garlic Testament are celebrated for their droll yet humane reflections on how their author’s quixotic notions of the independence involved in a part-time agricultural career were upended by the complex reality he encountered—the communal modes of life and farming still practiced in his largely Hispanic community. But Crawford stayed on and adapted, and he has written and farmed in Dixon for nearly five decades now.

His most recent novel, Village, chronicles a day in the life of San Marcos, a fictional village that resonates with Dixon as surely as Thomas McGuane’s creation “Deadrock” echoes the real town of Livingston, Mont.

Village marks a departure in Crawford’s career as a novelist. Eclectic in theme, style and setting, Crawford’s first eight novels deliver intimate portraits of a series of doomed but lovable misfits as they try to negotiate a space for themselves in a world that refuses to conform to their vision. With Village, Crawford weaves the bifurcated themes of his fiction and nonfiction into a quiet masterpiece.

The story of San Marcos is narrated by a cast of dysfunctional loners: a Chicano postmaster intent on sabotaging the employer he regards as a hostile occupying power; an Anglo toymaker who has been trying to eke out an existence without paying taxes (or even having a Social Security card) following his failure as a 1960s radical; and a ne’er-do-well with an almost erotic desire to be in car accidents, among others. Haunted by violent histories and troubled by visions of future apocalypse, these characters nevertheless manage to carve out an anarchic communal life in the present.

Northern New Mexico is a place with a palpable divide between recent Anglo interlopers and the Chicana/o and Indigenous inhabitants who preceded them, and Village pulls no punches in exploring that rift.

“Part of living in a multicultural society is the necessity of imagining who your neighbors are,” Crawford told me, acknowledging the risks inherent in the attempt. In taking those imaginative risks, and narrating the inner lives of his Chicana/o characters, Crawford tells a story that confronts the ongoing histories that divide us without regarding them as insurmountable.

The thread that literally and figuratively connects the lives of these characters is the Acequia de los Hermanos, the Spanish-era irrigation ditch that makes life in San Marcos possible while serving as its most reliable source of anxiety and strife. Over the course of the spring day narrated in the novel, the acequia is nursed back to life for the season by Lázaro Quintana, the aging mayordomo who oversees its maintenance and operation.

As Lázaro coaxes the water downstream—clearing errant roots, beaver falls and human detritus—some local evangelicals interrupt his work. These proselytizers paint a lurid picture of the disasters occurring in the world, insisting that they foretell the end times. Pondering these calamities, Lázaro silently concludes, “They were probably happening … because la gente had stopped taking care of their gardens.”

This matter-of-fact response to apocalyptic thinking carries a lesson in its apparent non-sequitur. “Anglos who move here have to learn something,” says Crawford, adding wryly, “though some don’t.”

The “something” that must be learned is perhaps what Lázaro has to teach: that we can only hope to survive the calamities of our history and future if we attend to the often unseen and unpaid labor we do for each other. The chores that provide a village with water, the care of our elders and children, our devotion to small things, vital and beautiful, like gardens—this is the work necessary to build and maintain a community that might endure.

When the sun sets on San Marcos at the conclusion of Village, nothing has really been settled; we are left with neither a happy ending nor a tragic but dramatically satisfying conclusion. Crawford is not a writer who peddles easy fixes, either for his village or the world beyond. Instead, he provides us with something far more valuable: the humor and grace to face the absurdities and catastrophes of a new day with the knowledge that we do not face them alone. 

Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of American literature and culture. He teaches in the Honors College at Arizona State University. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Village

By Stanley Crawford

Leaf Storm Press

256 pages, $26

Published in Literature

The tacos dorados, Francisco Cantú tells me as we push through the turnstiles into Nogales, Mexico, are some of the best he’s ever had.

So we beeline through the bustling streets toward the small metal cart in search of the paper-wrapped stacks of crispy chicken tacos dripping spicy red salsa.

Cantú is the author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border, forthcoming this February from Riverhead Books. The book is a beautiful and brutal chronicle of the four years he spent working as a Border Patrol agent, and the years afterward, in which an immigrant friend, José, is deported to Mexico—and Cantú finds himself navigating border policy from the other end.

The book, his first, is already generating buzz; Cantú has received a Whiting Award in Nonfiction and a Pushcart Prize, and a section of the book recently aired on This American Life.

On this Monday, we’ve driven the 45 minutes from Tucson to Nogales, leaving my red pickup on the U.S. side, under the shadow of the 30-foot-tall wall that cuts through the city. We eat our tacos in a little city park. Cars stream around us, but the park itself is calm: Big cottonwoods with white-painted trunks arch over us. A few fallen leaves tick around us in the wind, as we talk about what a relief it is to slip into Mexico for the afternoon—feeling the slight shift in the rhythm of life, the tilt of our perspective.

Cantú wears yellow-rimmed glasses and has a sizeable mustache, his thick dark hair containing only a few strands of gray.

“When I first started coming to Nogales, I was in the MFA program and teaching a class to undergraduates,” he says. “I remember thinking how crazy it was that anything south of the border was not a part of their worldview.”

For Cantú, the border has always been a presence. Growing up in Prescott, Ariz., he was “close enough to it to have an understanding of it as a complicated place.” His own grandfather crossed as a child, just after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.

After high school, Cantú went off to American University in Washington, D.C., to major in international relations. He studied abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico, becoming fluent in Spanish. “There was always that tension between what I would read in books and what I would see when I went home or when I traveled to Mexico,” Cantú says. “My mind was always trying to connect what I studied with the contours of the place as I understood it.”

This tension eventually led him to join the Border Patrol.

“I wanted to bridge the gap between academic knowledge and real world, on-the-ground realities,” he says. But “the work ended up giving me a whole new set of questions, without really answering the ones I came in with.”

During his years in the Border Patrol, Cantú found himself increasingly haunted by the border’s violence—both of the drug cartels, and of the desert landscape itself. No matter the risks, the crossers kept coming. At night, he woke from vivid, terrifying dreams, grinding his teeth.

He was working on an intelligence field team out of El Paso when he learned that he’d received a Fulbright Fellowship. So he quit the Border Patrol and spent his fellowship year living in The Netherlands, studying rejected asylum-seekers who chose to live in the shadows after their visas were denied.

But it was his own country’s border that pulled at him. He came back to the desert. He applied to get his MFA in creative nonfiction writing in Tucson.

“I can’t tell you the gift I gave myself in choosing to be a writer and not a government employee or a lawyer or a policymaker,” he says. “I don’t have to rack my brain any longer for a solution. That’s not my job anymore.” Instead, he sees his job as deepening people’s understanding of the border.

“It’s always easier to pose the questions as black-and-white, to think about a person being someone who deserves entry into this country or not. But that doesn’t encompass the complexity of what goes on here,” Cantú says.

The conversation needs to start by acknowledging the aspects of our border policy that are causing humanitarian crisis, he says. According to the United Nations Migration Agency, border deaths jumped 17 percent between 2016 and 2017, despite fewer people attempting the journey. By early August, 96 bodies had been recovered in Pima County, Ariz.—where both Cantú and I live— alone.

“We need the courage to say, ‘That’s not acceptable,’ ” says Cantú. “We shouldn’t be weaponizing a vast, inhospitable landscape through our policy. Whether or not that’s intentional, it’s happening right now.

“It’s hard to really grasp the significance of somebody saying: ‘It doesn’t matter how hellacious this obstacle is, I will overcome it, for my family, for my work.’ No matter what version of hell you put at the border, people are going to go through it to the other side. That presents the question: Should we be then trying to make this more hellacious and more life-threatening?

“We could talk about this forever,” he says to me. “But should we get a beer?”

The bar he takes me to is called Kaos, a place he went once with a Mexican friend. Cantú never manned the Nogales border—in his work with the Border Patrol, he patrolled the remote desert west of here and worked out of intelligence centers in Tucson and El Paso—but to walk with Cantú in Nogales is to move with familiarity.

“If you want Bacanora,” he tells me, referring to a Sonoran mezcal, “I know a guy here who makes the best Bacanora. He’s in a shoe shop.”

Inside the darkness of Kaos, we pour a fat liter of cold Tecate into two plastic cups, while mariachis noodle on their guitars in the corner. As the man next to him shouts over the music, he apologetically translates for me from time to time—“His friends call him mofles! Like Muffler! I don’t know why”—and I watch his face, so open and kind, so appreciative of the place. I try to picture him as la migra, the border police.

“There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this?” writes Cantú in The Line Becomes a River. “Of course, what you do depends on … what kind of agent you are … but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the border and set ablaze.”

I am not the first to wonder at the gap between what Cantú writes he has done, and his unyielding desire for a system that acknowledges the humanity of those who cross. He will later describe writing the book as a form of exorcism, an act that allowed him to atone, to make sense of his own involvement in what the border has become. It was an act that allowed him to see some of his experiences as complete, as over—even as he came to understand that, in other ways, some things are still ongoing, still a part of him.

Cantú twists back toward me. “Mofles says Tecate tastes better on this side!” he says over the music, with a wry smile. And I have to agree that it does.

On our way back to the United States, we still have room for tacos. We stop at a carne asada stand, where Cantú, laughing with the cocinero, gets the recipe. We eat as we walk, and at the last bend before the border, mopping taco juice from our fingers, we buy popsicles, paletas, for our wait in the border line: coconut for him, pistachio for me.

But the line is surprisingly empty, and we walk right through. We scan our passports; the Border Patrol agent takes a brief glance at them, and just like that, we cross the line into the United States—nonchalant, licking our popsicles, improbably powerful.

Headed north in late afternoon, I ask Cantú if driving through these green hills, across these big spaces, is different now that he’s patrolled them.

“It’s probably the landscape I know more intimately than any other,” he says. “I knew the name of every pass and peak out there, every mountain range and mile marker and wash.” He pauses. “But because of the work I did, it became impossible to drive through that landscape and think, ‘Oh, look how nice it is.’”

This land is not wild, he tells me, not in the way we like to think of it, with words like untouched and solace and peaceful. “All of a sudden, you have access to the knowledge that, 100 percent, there are groups of people right now that I cannot see walking across the same terrain that I’m looking across. There are scouts on a handful of these mountaintops that I’m looking at, that are watching everything, who are radioing people. There are human remains left undiscovered and unidentified.

“If you do this, you see the desert as teeming with this sort of human drama. And even if you go camping out there—you can totally still have the wilderness experience, can hike, and you will maybe never encounter anything other than sign of peoples’ passage. Because it’s so vast. But they’re out there.”

Katherine E. Standefer’s work appears in The Best American Essays 2016. She prefers cowboy boots. Follow @girlmakesfire. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Literature

In his remarkable memoir Attending Others, Brian Volck reflects on his career as a pediatrician, including stints at inner-city hospitals in the Midwest; several volunteer missions to Honduras; and years on the Navajo Reservation.

Through his practice, Volck has gained considerable wisdom—though he’s too humble to call it that. Attending Others is less a compendium of lessons learned than a gorgeous meditation on things that cannot be fully understood, such as the mysteries of the human condition. Volck focuses on how vulnerable we become through our bodies and our bonds with those we love, especially in the ties between parents and their children. His experiences with his own and other people’s children serve to perpetually reinforce what he calls “the first lesson of parenthood”: “You’re not in control.”

The memoir’s structure is indicative of its overall humility. After an opening scene at a Navajo wedding, Volck goes into the stories of two young patients who died while under his care: Brian in Cleveland, and Alice in Tuba City, Ariz. As he mulls over what he and the other medical professionals did when these children were brought into the emergency room, he shows us how a cure can elude even the most highly trained and conscientious healers.

“I don’t think about Brian as much as I once did,” Volck writes. “There are months now when I think I’ve forgotten him, but he’s never really gone. I carry his death like a pocket charm, laying it on the dresser at night with my wallet and keys. And if I ever do forget Brian, I remember Alice.”

Alice is a 2-year-old whose father brings her to the E.R. during the Navajo Nation Western Agency Fair. Alice’s father wants to drive her to a hospital in New Mexico, six hours away, thinking the care there would be better. But Volck dissuades the family from moving her, noting that he was “careful to avoid warnings about ‘what could happen if you don’t do as I say,’ which to traditional Navajo can sound as though the doctor wishes them harm.”

Alice’s pneumonia symptoms intensify, and eventually, she dies. Volck will never know if she would have made it safely to the other hospital, and if the doctors there would have detected something he didn’t. But despite his setbacks, Volck’s hard-won knowledge of Navajo culture eventually helped him become a better doctor to their community.

Volck writes, “Like many Anglo medical professionals, I learned from Navajo or Hopi babysitters the prime directive of Native hospitality: Always bring something.” Volck learns to be patient with Navajo social customs when he introduces a translator, instead of rushing the conversation toward the questions he wants answered. No matter how much he discovers about Navajo culture, though, Volck respects that he can never fully understand it or consider himself a part of it: “When I lived on the Navajo reservation, I knew no matter how long I stayed, I would always be a visitor from somewhere else. I also saw up close how sad and parasitic wannabes are, how protestations of oceanic tolerance never change who you are and where you come from. When I’m asked what I learned from my years on the reservation, I usually say, ‘That I’m not Indian; not even in a past life.’”

When Volck and his family decide to leave Arizona, people at the hospital ask why. “When I answered, ‘Because our kids need to see their grandparents more than once or twice a year,’ our Navajo and Hopi friends would almost invariably lean closer, touch my shoulder with feathery lightness, and grin, sometimes adding, ‘Looks like we actually taught you something.’”

Volck returns periodically for stints with the Indian Health Service whenever they need a doctor to fill in. Over the years, he notices changes—fewer young people learn to speak Navajo, for example, and “facilities had improved, staff expanded, and serious acute illnesses gave way to chronic conditions like childhood obesity and Type II diabetes.”

Volck illustrates the endless problems facing children in poverty—from malnutrition to accidents—yet he never loses sight of the grace that each encounter offers him. As he writes about one young patient: “Pay attention; here is a most special person.”

Volck’s writing is luminous, vigorous and sensory, inviting the reader into the scene. The love he has for his patients is clear, as is his irritation with bureaucracy and the more tedious aspects of his job. Attending Others is about the practice of medicine, but in a larger sense, it’s about being a human being, trying to navigate relationships and a career despite one’s particular flaws, and occasionally finding moments of connection and beauty that make all the frustrations worthwhile.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words

By Brian Volck

Cascade

222 pages, $25

Published in Literature

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