Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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.


By Emily Ruskovich

Random House

336 pages, $17


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.


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


222 pages, $25

Published in Literature

On Aug. 21, 2017, the moon will ride its elliptical orbit precisely between the Earth and the sun, plunging the land below into the crepuscule of a total solar eclipse.

Beginning at around 10 a.m. Pacific Time, the dark path of totality will sweep northwest to southeast across the United States, casting its eerie gloom upon Western towns such as Madras, Ore.; Rexburg, Idaho; and Casper, Wyo. The sky will turn violet; shadows will sharpen; pigeons will roost; and owls will take wing. Millions of umbraphiles—eclipse chasers—will crane their necks to witness more than two minutes of lunar ecstasy, transfixed by an occluded sun that science writer David Baron describes as “an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris … the eye of the cosmos.”

Although partial solar eclipses and lunar eclipses are relatively common, total solar eclipses are rarer beasts: When totality last traversed the entire width of the continental U.S., Woodrow Wilson was struggling to negotiate an end to World War I. Baron, himself a devoted umbraphile—you might call him a lunatic—has pursued the phenomenon to Germany, Australia and the Faroe Islands. His new book, American Eclipse, chronicles an instance much closer to home: the shadow that sped from Montana to Texas in 1878, perhaps the most significant total solar eclipse in the country’s history.

For much of the 19th century, the young United States was a second-rate nation, scientifically speaking, shrouded by what one astronomer deemed a “period of apparent intellectual darkness.” The 1878 eclipse promised to lift that metaphorical blackness by supplying literal dusk: Under the moon-dimmed Rocky Mountain sky, American scientists would have the opportunity to seek new planets, study the sun’s outer atmosphere, and even deduce its chemical composition. Researchers leapt at the chance to help America “fulfill its responsibility as an enlightened member of the global scientific community”—and, in the process, gain personal glory.

Westerners know Baron from his first book, The Beast in the Garden, which documented—some would say sensationalized—a series of cougar attacks in Colorado. In American Eclipse, the fiercest beasts are the scientists competing to document the astronomical anomaly. Baron introduces us to James Craig Watson, an astronomer with a Jupiter-sized ego who’s convinced that the eclipse will help him discover an unseen hypothetical planet called Vulcan. We meet Cleveland Abbe, a meteorologist, known charmingly as “Old Probabilities,” who persists in eclipse-watching at Pikes Peak despite a near-fatal case of high-altitude cerebral edema. And then there’s a young inventor named Thomas Edison, eager “to demonstrate that he was a scientist and no mere tinkerer” by measuring the heat of the sun’s corona with a zany (and ultimately failed) invention called the tasimeter.

Amid all this scientific machismo, the book’s most sympathetic character is Maria Mitchell, an astronomer and suffragette intent on demonstrating the equal abilities of women. At the time, certain pseudo-academics posited that “higher education caused a girl’s body—especially her reproductive organs—to atrophy.” To debunk this repugnant theory, Mitchell dispatched a cohort of “lady astronomers” to Colorado to study the eclipse and provide “a kind of political theater, promoting social change.” Mitchell’s mission succeeded—one newspaper called her squad “a conspicuous example of the power and grasp of the feminine intellect”—though the sexual-harassment scandals that roil modern astronomy prove that true equality still eludes the field.

American Eclipse’s most vivid character, though, is the fledgling West itself. In 1878, the region lingered in a kind of limbo: civilized enough that you could journey to Wyoming in a railcar hung with chandeliers, wild enough that your train stood a considerable risk of being boarded and cleaned out by bandits. The citizens of burgeoning Denver—a town that “aspired to elegance, even enlightenment”—were particularly desperate to prove their city’s worth to snooty East Coast scientists. As one local boasted to a visiting Englishman, “Sir, Colorado can beat the world in eclipses as in everything else.”

While modern astronomers no longer require eclipses to study the heavens, this year’s event will still inspire an epic pilgrimage. An eclipse festival in Oregon expects 30,000 visitors, and some Jackson hotels have been booked for three years.

We live with our eyes cast downward, fixed upon hand-sized screens; this year’s American eclipse offers a chance to lift our gaze to a universe far grander and stranger than the circumscribed worlds we cradle in our palms. “These rare and unearthly events … suspend human affairs and draw people out of their quotidian existence,” Baron writes. We may comprehend our solar system vastly better than we did in 1878, but our capacity for awe remains, fortunately, undiminished.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News

American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World

By David Baron

W.W. Norton and Company

352 pages, $27.95

Published in Literature

Listen up, water-loving Westerners: We’ve got a problem—a trout problem.

For decades, anglers have fetishized these silvery stream-dwellers, maniacally pursuing rainbows, browns and brookies to the neglect of other underwater life. Every year, obliging fish managers pump America’s waterways full of millions of hatchery-born trout, diluting gene pools and overwhelming native species. We fishermen consider ourselves enlightened stewards, but our trout myopia reveals our true self-centeredness.

And let’s not even get started on bass.

Fortunately, there are plenty more fish in the sea—to say nothing of rivers, creeks and lakes. For anyone seeking a deeper understanding of what lies beneath the surface of Western waterways, Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West offers a lively primer to the region’s aquatic biodiversity.

Over the course of 11 chapters, Mark Spitzer, a writing professor at the University of Central Arkansas and a certified angling addict, travels the country seeking the kinds of experiences that you’re unlikely to find valorized in the pages of Field and Stream: ice-fishing for burbot in Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir, bounty-hunting for pikeminnow in the Columbia River in Washington, snagging paddlefish in Missouri. (Spitzer has a decidedly liberal geographic definition of the West.) “Give me your wretched, your maligned, your demonized—this has always been my motto,” he writes.

Spitzer’s shtick is to love the unlovely, to venerate the homely stalwarts that make up in resilience what they lack in conventional beauty. This is a writer whose master’s thesis was a novel about a “misunderstood, man-eating catfish,” and whose first two nonfiction books profiled the alligator gar, a gargantuan primitive fish with a crocodilian smile. You might think that a lifetime of scribbling about gruesome freshwater monsters would have scratched that particular itch, yet Spitzer’s ardor for the ugly remains powerful. He rhapsodizes about the razorback sucker, a “quasi-Quasimodo with an elongated horsey head”; the paddlefish and its “crazy flat spatulated nose”; and the way American eels swim together in “spermy formation.” Granted, not all the fish he targets truly deserve the grotesque label: You get the distinct feeling that he includes a chapter on muskellunge—a sleek, tiger-striped predator that’s gorgeous by anyone’s definition—simply because he yearns to catch one.

Just as Spitzer revels in homely fish, he delights in less-than-scenic landscapes, especially ones dominated by human activity. He does his best fishing in reservoirs, below dams and along what he dubs the Industrial Edge, “ecotones of smokestacks and cinderblocks and rusty pipes and climbing ivies,” where the built and natural environments collide. On Oregon’s Willamette River, across the channel from railroad tracks and homeless camps, he lands dinosaur-like sturgeon, ancient fish that were swimming Western rivers back when hominids were just a glint in evolution’s eye.

Spitzer has a soft spot for invasive species, too. After netting non-native carp, he opines, perhaps optimistically, “that we can strike a balance with non-indigenous species and incorporate them into our cultures.” Slathered in teriyaki sauce and curry paste, he discovers, carp and hideous snakehead fish aren’t half bad. If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.

Occasionally, the author turns the lens inward, to the grotesqueries of his own life. Spitzer makes passing reference to an acrimonious divorce, the death of his mother and, finally, a winsome new partner. In one passage, landing a 6-foot-long gar in Texas soothes his bitterness about the dissolution of his marriage, providing a redemptive connection to “that youthful capacity for wondering and marveling at what this world has to offer.” During such moments, you can glimpse the contours of a more personal—and emotionally richer—book lurking just beneath the surface: a fisherman’s version of Wild, with, say, the Missouri River standing in for the Pacific Crest Trail. Spitzer angles half the rivers in the West, but he never satisfyingly plumbs his own depths.

What Beautifully Grotesque Fish lacks in soul-searching, though, it makes up in soul: It’s a paean to the ignored, an homage to the uncelebrated. It’s about embracing the nature we have, whatever it looks like, wherever it swims. (There’s also plenty of technical advice for fishermen hoping to duplicate Spitzer’s quirky exploits: The best lure on which to catch pikeminnow, we learn, is “either a rubber tube or a grub” deployed using a “plunking action.”)

In the end, Spitzer’s book offers a fishing manifesto for a human-dominated planet—call it “Angling in the Anthropocene.” May trout have company in our hearts, and on our lines.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West

By Mark Spitzer

University of Nebraska/Bison Press

232 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

If a city’s planners are savvy, they’ll adapt to the ebb and flow of natural resources with entrepreneurial vision.

When the logging industry collapsed in Oakridge, Ore., the town reinvented itself as a haven for mountain bikers. Downtown Tacoma, Wash.—once shattered by depression and crime—now revolves around the Museum of Glass made famous by artist Dale Chihuly, who was born in the city.

Monterey, Calif., represents one of the most successful examples of the resuscitation of a struggling city. The rough-and-tumble fish-processing town made famous by John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row is all but unrecognizable today as a glitzy tourist destination—a transformation that Lindsay Hatton explores in her debut novel, Monterey Bay. In a story that begins in 1940 and concludes in 1998, she chronicles the process of gentrification and its various losses and gains, both economic and social.

Her aged protagonist, Margot Fiske, looks back on the Cannery Row of her youth: “And here in the weeds and ice plants, in the rusty metal that smells salty in the sun and bloody in the fog, she dreams of everything that has slipped away.”

Hatton’s story begins when the 15-year-old Margot arrives in Monterey at the start of World War II with her father, an entrepreneur who specializes in “industrial transformations.” He purchases the largest cannery in town, with intentions that his daughter believes to be nefarious, and he orders her to assist an influential marine biologist with his tidepool collections.

The biologist in question, Ed Ricketts, plays a pivotal role in both Steinbeck and Hatton’s books. “He dug himself into Cannery Row to an extent not even he suspected. He became the fountain of philosophy and science and art,” Steinbeck writes of the real-life Ricketts, an expert on intertidal ecology. His lab and marine-biology supply house on the Row hosted salon-style debates with the likes of writer Henry Miller, mythologist Joseph Campbell and composer John Cage.

In Hatton’s book, Ricketts functions primarily as Margot’s love interest. He stitches up her head wound after a fall and then proceeds to seduce her on the single bed in his lab.

But he also becomes the inspiration for Margot’s later coming of age as an environmental entrepreneur. When her father dies, leaving her the old cannery along with his fortune, the adult Margot decides to transform it into the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “If she gave enough of herself, this town would love her even more than it loved its own children,” Hatton writes, hinting that Margot built the aquarium largely in homage to Ricketts, who died in 1948.

In Cannery Row, Steinbeck portrayed the region in all its dingy, scrappy charm. Hatton blends Steinbeck’s nostalgia with a contemporary sensibility regarding her city, examining its quirks as astutely as Ricketts once studied marine life under his microscope. In her novel, Cannery Row itself becomes a protagonist, by turns vibrant and lethargic, with its seedy practicality struggling over decades to flower into international renown.

Those who know their Steinbeck will imagine the author fleeing Cannery Row long before construction workers raised the steel supporting beams and acrylic viewing walls of the aquarium. He had no love for gentrification, and he’d likely view the avant-garde landmark with sardonic horror. But Hatton embraces the city’s transformation with her own protagonist’s enthusiasm, a business sense enlivened by the author’s own experiences as an aquarium volunteer. In the end, she inspires us to look beyond the four-star hotels and restaurants and spas that now line Cannery Row to the reason the landmark exists at all—the vast stretch of the Pacific it overlooks, still glorious despite all the many changes.

“At first, she thinks it’s sickness; the ocean is sore and inflamed and lumpy with pus,” she writes of her protagonist. “But then there’s an unexpected blast of vitality—reds and purples—which is when she knows it isn’t sickness. It’s squid. A huge, vibrant shoal of them, a kaleidoscopic swarm squirming and flashing, tentacles weaving as they rise toward the light.”

In Hatton’s novel, the changes that befall one’s hometown are never simply good or bad; rather, they are just inevitable. To survive them, Westerners will have to learn to find wonder where they can — and to roll with the tides.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Monterey Bay

By Lindsay Hatton


320 pages, $16

Published in Literature

First things first: Coyote. When you read the word, how many syllables do you hear? Your answer, according to Dan Flores, author of Coyote America, may be “immediately diagnostic of a whole range of belief systems and values.”

The ki-YOH-tee versus ki-yote divide is one of the best indicators of a person’s coyote politics, a nearly hard-and-fast way that we subconsciously identify ourselves: as defenders of the species in the case of the former, or as a manager, shooter and/or trapper in the latter.

In Coyote America, Flores occasionally assumes the mantle of the coyote’s head of public relations, demonstrating how the species, once “dead last in public appeal — behind rattlesnakes, skunks, vultures, rats, and cockroaches,” overcame its stigma as a “varmint” to become a darling among the very people who most infrequently encounter it—modern-day urbanites. More often, though, Flores is content to serve as a guide to the species, relaying the coyote’s complicated natural, cultural, political and mythological histories. It is why Flores describes his book as, “in most respects, a coyote biography.”

Tales about Old Man Coyote have proliferated in Native America, most likely since the days of the ancestral Clovis people, ensuring the canid’s status as perhaps the continent’s most charismatic species. Flores examines the animist religions of “Coyotism” that arose during the Neolithic Revolution, a time marked by the domestication of plants and animals, including the coyote. Ultimately, however, the coyote’s revered status among humans is probably due to one very unique ecological coincidence: We are the only two mammalian species to have distributed ourselves so completely across the North American continent, making us “Darwinian mirrors” of each other. And because coyotes are truly “American originals”—they evolved not in the Old World, but here on this continent—they also remind us, as Flores says, “that we are new and barely real here.”

This fact hasn’t stopped humans from attempting to eradicate coyotes. In the chapters “A War on Wild Things” and “The Archpredator of Our Time,” Flores delves into how coyotes came to be regarded as a “parasite on civilization.” It was rare for Western settlers to agree wholeheartedly on anything, and yet they soon arrived at a common consensus—that coyotes and wolves were a scourge that endangered range life. This resulted in the establishment of bounties (at the time, a generous $1 per scalp) across most plains and desert states. It didn’t take long for Congress to adopt an even more radical eradication program in 1931 that targeted both predators along with “other animals injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry.”

Flores calls this “species cleansing,” a term he deliberately links to fascist rhetoric and episodes of genocide. Yet the campaign to clobber the coyote faced significant opposition. Flores suggests that the discourse between federal policymakers and scientists began to resemble a “predator-prey dialectic” itself, a parallel to what was happening between hunters and coyotes. This is around the time the famed environmentalist Aldo Leopold “had come to realize that a predator-free ‘paradise’ contained a fatal non sequitur.”

National parks and “scientist saviors” fought to preserve the species. But that’s not the whole story. Ultimately, coyotes took matters into their own paws. As it turns out, Canis latrans is nearly indestructible. With the help of computer simulations, biologists discovered a rare adaptive breeding mechanism that helps ensure the species’ survival, despite the odds: In the wake of population-control measures, female coyotes tend to birth even larger litters with more surviving pups.

Flores’ overview of environmental legal protection is more than a timeline; it’s a drama of its own, full of political villainy along with the occasional victory lap. Flores is eager to recognize the coyote’s cultural champions, from Walt Disney to Edward Abbey, whose tone in his writing about the coyote sometimes verges on the gloating, a trademark “thumb in the eye of Western ranching.”

Still, though, with 500,000 coyotes killed every year—about one per minute—the “varmint” stigma clearly persists. A photograph on Page 185 taken by Kevin Bixby depicts at least 15 coyote corpses in the New Mexican desert following a coyote-hunting contest. Thus, it’s no wonder coyotes have taken to our cities. From New York City to Denver to Los Angeles—and nearly every other major metropolis in the United States—the spike in urban coyote populations indicates yet another phase of the canid’s unique adaptability.

Of course, seeing a coyote in the city also presents humans with an opportunity to adapt. “To confront a predator,” Flores writes, “is to stand before the dual-faced god from our deep past,” to be reminded of “bright teeth.” Americans who want to be “re-wilded” and re-connected to nature (a distinct craving posited by evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff) now need look no further than the packs that are forming—and even thriving—in our own city centers.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Coyote America

By Dan Flores

Basic Books

288 pages, $27.50

Published in Literature

Dozens of nonfiction books have delved into the history of nuclear facilities in the West and the Manhattan Project, detailing the Department of War’s secret acquisition of land in Los Alamos, the rapid emigration of eminent scientists, and their feverish work to build the atomic bomb. But when it comes to the human drama behind the science, several writers have turned to fiction, and women’s perspectives, to tell the story.

TaraShea Nesbit’s poised 2014 novel The Wives of Los Alamos delivers the details of life in the top-secret town through the incantatory collective first-person voice of the scientists’ wives. In Nora Gallagher’s elegant 2007 novel Changing Light, set in 1945 Los Alamos, a female painter befriends a scientist injured in a radiation accident who can’t disclose any details of his work.

Now, Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, draws on her personal history to spin a compelling tale of an intelligent woman whose dreams are deferred in service to her husband’s nuclear work. Church’s father was a research chemist recruited to the Manhattan Project. Her mother, a biologist, followed him to Los Alamos, where Church grew up.

Church tells the story of Meridian Wallace, an ambitious young woman who aims to earn her doctorate in ornithology, but is derailed by love and its consequences. Meridian earns a scholarship to the University of Chicago in 1941, and soon attracts Alden Whetstone, a physics professor whom she describes as “a wholly intellectual creature barely cognizant of the physical world and its requirements. I felt myself longing to soar along with him in the realm of pure ideas, of complete and total academic isolation.” They marry before he relocates to Los Alamos for the war effort; she eventually follows, and her plans to pursue a Ph.D. at Cornell crumble.

Church tracks Meridian for decades, as Alden turns into a controlling, antisocial fussbudget, and she languishes, neglected and unfulfilled, studying the local crow population in a desultory way. Meridian struggles toward self-actualization, gradually at first and then in a headlong rush when in 1970 she meets a handsome Vietnam vet, fresh from the commune, with long hair and love beads. The Atomic Weight of Love is a mid-life coming-of-age tale, set in an era when women had to wait a long time before they could put themselves first—if they ever could.

The Longest Night, the propulsive, nuanced debut by Andria Williams, similarly feels like the book this author was born to write. Williams’ husband is an active-duty naval officer, currently stationed in Colorado, and she conveys the interpersonal tensions of life in the military, both on the base and in town, with apt detail. The story begins in 1959, when Paul and Nat Collier move with their two young daughters to Idaho Falls, where Paul has been stationed to work on a clunky nuclear reactor. Even if readers know that this was the site in 1961 of America’s only fatal nuclear reactor meltdown, the suspense of The Longest Night only intensifies as it creeps toward that event.

Paul observes shoddy maintenance and incompetent leadership at the reactor, but keeps Nat in the dark so as not to worry her—white lies that soon become a symptom of their fraying marriage. Stress builds as Paul clashes with his lecherous and drunken superior officer. Meanwhile, Nat feels marooned without a car and judged by gossipy military wives in a town where “someone’s garbage can lid laying to the side and not securely clamped on the can: That was an event.” When Paul is deployed to Antarctica as a consequence of an impetuous mistake, Nat welcomes the friendship of a courteous local car repairman.

Williams has a knack for crafting taut scenes that increase tension, reveal character and entertain—the reckless dive that displays a young mother’s spirit and the strains in her marriage, the disastrous dinner party hosted by “one of those women … whose calculating mind was always at work on others of her sex, detecting their weaknesses like a mine-sniffing German shepherd,” and the small-town diner where there’s a “dinginess to the place, grime in every crevice, a sense of not quite caring.”

Williams writes with rich psychological insight into all her characters, who evolve and surprise, even the beastliest and youngest. Nat’s children, like Shakespeare’s fools, regularly pipe up with information that reveals the truth adults are trained to conceal.

These two novels focus on the kind of capable women drawn to the West by nuclear installations, only to find their potential squelched due to the mid-20th century’s primary focus on the work of men. As these women simmer and yearn, and the ’60s and ’70s dawn, we see their personal lives become as volatile as reactors.

You could fill a shelf with books set in the nuclear West. These two debut novels prove that the formidable power of nuclear facilities, the flawed humans who run them, and questions about the morality of these experiments continue to make for gripping drama.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Longest Night

By Andria Williams

Random House

400 pages, $27

The Atomic Weight of Love

By Elizabeth J. Church


352 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature