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In Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters, veteran firefighter Jason Ramos chronicles the history of the elite group of airborne firefighters who attack blazes in some of the West’s most remote and rugged country.

Smokejumpers are equipped to handle any situation, in any terrain, at any time, and since 1939, they have battled wildfires from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Silver City, N.M. Ramos calls his comrades “the Swiss Army knives of firefighting,” justifying that moniker with an array of colorful anecdotes. At the same time, he explains the ecological importance of wildfires, pointing out the natural regenerative role that they play.

Ramos worked his way up the ranks, starting as an adolescent municipal firefighter in California. His knowledge of the firefighting community is impressive, and even after 16 years, he says, “I’m still learning new things all the time.”

Smokejumpers have to be tough, and so their rookie training school must be even tougher—it’s comparable to the Navy SEALS program. Despite a serious leg injury, Ramos passed. Ramos’ instructor was unsympathetic: “‘I’m pushing as hard as I can,’ I said. His answer was brutal in its honesty. ‘I don’t care,’ he said. ‘You better pick it up. On a fire, it doesn’t matter if you’re hurt.’” Ramos eventually parachuted into some of the biggest fires in recent history, including the devastating 2014 Carlton Complex in Washington.

Ramos describes historic fires and assesses recent beasts, including the 1994 South Canyon Fire, the 2001 Thirtymile Fire, and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, explaining how these turned so deadly and noting the lessons that firefighters learned from them. He jabs at the way bureaucracy often hampers missions; some fire chiefs hesitate to call in jumpers, hoping to save taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, the problem is larger than local municipalities—Congress doesn’t allow the Forest Service to draw on disaster funding outside its normal budget for firefighting, and the agency already spends almost half of its entire budget fighting fires. That takes money away from other programs, including those that might prevent fires or mitigate their impacts.

While it’s clearly an ecological mistake to fight every blaze that erupts, allowing massive fires to burn toward neighborhoods can be deadly. Finding a balance is tricky, and Ramos’ narrative will surely spark hearty debate. Even after battling wildfires for nearly two decades, he remains captivated by them: “There’s something about fire that touches something deep and hardwired in the human soul. … There’s a reason why the ancients considered fire one of the four elements.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters

By Jason A. Ramos and Julian Smith

William Morrow

233 pages, $24.99

Published in Literature

Heading into his sunset years, Louis Waters doesn’t ask for much. “Hell,” he says, “I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day.”

He quit teaching years ago. Cancer killed his wife, and his daughter has moved away. He’s resigned himself to a lonely end in small-town Holt, Colo., the fictional setting of all of the late Kent Haruf’s quietly sweeping novels. (Haruf died after completing this book, Our Souls at Night, and before its publication.) But Louis’ neighbor, Addie Moore, has a different idea.

“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me,” she asks him. “I’m lonely. I think you might be, too.”

She’s not talking about sex, but about companionship: a hand to hold, a body to warm and, most of all, someone with whom to share her thoughts. “The nights are the worst,” she says. “Don’t you think?” After dinner, Louis takes the alley to Addie’s house, where he changes into his pajamas and slips into bed beside her. They ask each other questions in the dark—questions about their children, their previous marriages, the sins of their past and the regrets of their present. As this pocket-sized yet profound novel unfolds, Louis and Addie reach for a second chance at companionship, something neither has known for decades.

“Who does ever get what they want?” Addie asks. “It’s always two people bumping against each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings.”

Tension arises when the town starts gossiping—especially when the grown-up children disapprove. But the real emotional tightrope is strung between Addie and Louis’ newfound happiness and the unpredictable clock of a human life: How long can this last? Who or what will step in the way? And how much happiness does a person deserve?

For a book so filled with heart, Our Souls at Night appears largely uninterested in love—at least not in the traditional sense. At this stage in their lives, Addie and Louis seem to know better. In fact, the word “love” is used sparingly in this novel, if at all. What forms between these two lonely people transcends any abstract term; it is, instead, a simple understanding, the acceptance of two flawed souls and the fate that awaits us all.

Our Souls at Night

By Kent Haruf


192 pages, $24

Published in Literature

Extreme behavior inspires Santa Barbara-based novelist T.C. Boyle, whether it’s the megalomania evinced by brilliant men such as Frank Lloyd Wright (The Women) and Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle), or humanity’s dismaying readiness to revert to animalistic behavior (When The Killing’s Done).

In his 25th book, The Harder They Come, Boyle finds hard-charging drama in the lives of Westerners whose beliefs and delusions push them toward destructive actions.

Two real-life news events sparked Boyle’s imagination. In 2007, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran on vacation in Costa Rica killed a would-be robber with his bare hands. Then, in 2014, authorities captured a California fugitive who’d been surviving in the Utah wilderness for years, robbing cabins and hunting animals.

In The Harder They Come, Sten Stenson is the strapping veteran and retired school principal who saves his fellow elderly tourists during a stickup. He’s treated as a hero after the incident, but the killing makes him uneasy, as do his constant worries about his mentally ill grown son, Adam.

Adam is living in his deceased grandmother’s house in Mendocino County, Calif., training as a survivalist and raising poppies in the woods for an opium harvest. Obsessed by the exploits of the legendary mountain man John Colter, he is spinning out into what seem to be schizophrenic delusions.

Out hitchhiking one day, Adam is picked up by Sara, a middle-age farrier who is vehemently anti-government. She initiates a fling with Adam that culminates in a spate of law-breaking.

Writing in close third-person that switches between the three characters’ perspectives, Boyle captures the runaway train of their thoughts. “Seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate that had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing,” Sarah rails.

The reader is carried along on the rushing stream of their perverse logic and intermittently feels sympathy for them. The Harder They Come reminds us of an uncomfortable truth: As much as we might want to dismiss violent people who hold extreme beliefs as isolated, deranged kooks, they’re as human as the rest of us. They’re also living among us—and as recent events have painfully proven, some of them might be ready to blow at any moment.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Harder They Come

By T.C. Boyle


400 pages, $27.99

Published in Literature

Each chapter of Contenders—Colorado writer Erika Krouse’s sharp, fresh debut novel of love, street fighting and deep-rooted disaffection—begins with a brief parable from martial arts lore or Asian folk traditions.

In one, a squirrel tells a bird that he knows 15 ways to escape a fox. The bird, however, knows only one way: He flies. When a fox appears, “The fox’s jaws closed on the squirrel as it was trying to decide which of the 15 things it should do. The bird had already flown away.”

Krouse’s protagonist, Nina Black, is a woman who knows one thing, and that is fighting. As a teenager in Grand Junction, Colo., she escaped an abusive father when she began to get serious training in martial arts from a gifted Vietnam veteran.

Now in her late 20s, and having left her family with no forwarding address, Nina leads an isolated existence in a run-down apartment in Denver, earning a precarious living by going to bars, approaching men she suspects are cads, and then—when they make a move on her—beating them up and stealing their wallets. “Nina thought of herself as a kind of pool shark,” Krouse writes, “except she didn’t play pool. … She was an enforcement officer, collecting small fines from men who violated the social contract.”

Nina’s secret collection of purloined wallets is nearing 100 when she beats up a steroid-fueled man named Cage—a crooked cop who was once a mixed martial arts champion. She ends up not only with his money, but also with his badge, and he responds by pursuing her in a seriously menacing way. All this happens just as her childhood crush, Isaac, turns up in Denver with the 8-year-old orphaned niece Nina never knew she had, the daughter of her dead twin brother.

Isaac is a successful actor in commercials who is as well-meaning as Nina is dangerous, and as responsible as she is unreliable. Still, love begins to grow between the three members of this off-kilter family, just as Cage threatens to destroy Nina for good.

With its tough one-woman-fighting-machine protagonist and its radical upheaval of expected gender roles, Contenders veers far from standard patterns and continually surprises the reader. Krouse’s wit, erudition and precise language make Contenders a pleasure to read even when it achieves stark darkness before—finally—lifting its head toward the light.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.


By Erika Krouse

Rare Bird

280 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

In his heartbreaking new book, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, California writer Richard Reeves reminds us that wars have a frightening tendency to spawn racial prejudice.

The incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans has been relegated to a footnote in U.S. history for 70 years. Infamy is a not-so-gentle reminder of that tragedy.

Backed by a wealth of research, Reeves documents the systemic racism behind internment, the military and political leaders who launched it, and the massive toll it took on immigrants and their children in the wake of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Soon after Pearl Harbor,” Reeves writes, “Caucasian shopkeepers joined the farmers in outspoken hatred, with signs saying ‘This restaurant poisons both rats and Japs’ and ‘Open hunting season for Japs.’”

Infamy generally portrays first-generation Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents as patriotic U.S. citizens who happened to have the “wrong” physical features. The campaign to evacuate them from the West Coast was led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, generals and other prominent officials.

Reeves was inspired to write Infamy, he explains in the introduction, after he drove through a desolate area of California and passed a sign that read, “Manzanar War Relocation Center.” This relic of the past haunted him: “I finally decided to write this book when I saw that my country, not for the first time, began turning on immigrants, blaming them for the troubles of the day.”

Xenophobia reigned then much as it did after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Horrific scenes in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona mirrored events in Nazi Germany: FBI agents barged into private homes, and soldiers herded Japanese Americans into railroad cars bound for 10 relocation centers, located primarily in the West, ranging from Heart Mountain in Wyoming and Topaz in Utah, to Amache in Colorado, Gila River in Arizona, and Minidoka in Idaho. Barbed wire and machine gun-toting guards kept them imprisoned until the war was almost over. More than 1,800 died in the camps.

The epilogue notes that, almost 50 years later, the U.S. government paid $1.2 billion in reparations to the survivors. “The money was a pittance compared to the billions in 2014 dollars American Japanese had lost, but in the end, it was not about money,” Reeves concludes. “It was about getting a formal apology from the government for stealing liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II

By Richard Reeves

Henry Holt and Co.

368 pages, $32

Published in Literature

In Leaving Before the Rains Come, her fifth nonfiction book, Wyoming writer Alexandra Fuller traces the unsteady arc of her marriage, from its shaky foundation in southern Africa to its final unraveling in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Fuller’s readers will recognize characters and events from her traumatic (and comic) childhood in war-torn British Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, which she wrote about in the best-selling Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Although her new book covers some of the same terrain, this memoir unspools in a steadier, wiser voice. Fuller reflects on how her chaotic early years, rife with loss and disease, created a deep craving for stability, calm and safety, which she attempted to satisfy as an adult by marrying an American named Charlie Ross.

After she nearly dies of malaria in Zambia while caring for her newborn daughter, Fuller and her family move to the United States. There, in the shadow of the Tetons, she finds herself swept into American life, with its surfeit of security and predictability: “Americans were not expected to encounter unexpected, surprising hazards. … Mile markers along trails reminded us … how far it was back to the car.” Fuller marvels at those around her who take up outdoor activities just “for the adrenaline,” a sharp contrast to her life in Africa: “Most people I knew, myself included, had been saturated by enough of that hormone by early childhood to last a lifetime.”

The differences that at first provide relief eventually drive a wedge between Fuller and her husband. “He saw the world in concrete terms, rationally, as if the place were solid and the systems … were dependable,” she writes. “I saw the world as something fluid; I expected irrationality and mild madness, and most of the time, I did not think the gap between the two was important.” Fuller digs into both the long line of instability in her own extended family and the legacy of buried suffering in her husband’s family.

When her marriage finally frays, and she embarks on a solo life, she finds unexpected comfort in the wry humor and unflinching stoicism of her parents. “What I didn’t know (as a child) is that the assurances I needed couldn’t be had,” she writes. “I did not know that for the things that unhorse you, for the things that wreck you … there is no conventional guard.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Leaving Before the Rains Come

By Alexandra Fuller


272 pages, $26.95

Published in Literature

At the age of 6, Bryce Andrews sat at his family’s kitchen table in Seattle, listening to rancher/artist Pat Zentz talk about building sculptures—and pulling spotted knapweed.

Art and agriculture went together, the boy assumed.

The next year, curators at the University of Washington’s art museum installed “The Myth of the West,” an exhibit his father organized. Young Andrews stood wide-eyed before Albert Bierstadt’s painting “Yellowstone Falls,” then turned and practiced his quick draw facing Warhol’s “Double Elvis.” That same year, his family visited the Zentz Ranch in Montana, in a pilgrimage that would become an annual event. Sixteen years later, Andrews himself began living the myth of the West, when he became an assistant livestock manager on a different ranch.

Andrews’ first book, his award-winning 2014 memoir, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West, begins with his journey from the “damp claustrophobia” of Seattle to the 20,000-acre Sun Ranch in remote southwest Montana. “I had practiced this departure many times,” he notes. “I was headed away from my youth.” The Madison Valley opens before him, peaks rising like “glinting canine teeth,” the Madison River drawing “a golden line through the heart of the valley,” which is home to two small towns, Ennis and Cameron. Intrigued by the ranch owner’s mission to reconcile the needs of wildlife, livestock and the land, Andrews gives narrative weight to all the members of this community—not just people and cattle, but wolves and grizzlies as well. “One of our great failures,” he believes, “is that we do not allow animals to be individuals. When gritty struggles play out on the landscape, it matters which wolves, which people, and which cattle.”

But not everyone in the community views wolves as individuals, and gritty struggles soon erupt. “The choices made at Sun Ranch about living with wolves,” says Andrews, “boiled over onto the rest of the landscape. If one ranch has wolves, that policy impacts neighbors.”

The Sun Ranch was a transformative experience, a proving ground that began shaping a three-pronged life as writer, rancher and conservationist. Afterward, Andrews continued working at the confluence of agriculture and conservation, managing multiple ranches in Montana, co-founding the Oxbow Cattle Company (a grass-fed beef ranch near Missoula) and consulting on land stewardship. When not on horseback, he wrote; in 2014, he sold his half of the grass-fed beef operation to concentrate more fully on writing and consulting.

The co-existence of aesthetics and manual labor is a major theme in Andrews’ life. Figuring out how something works, whether a landscape or a novel, is a hands-on process.

“Right now, I’m framing my first gable roof over a little wood-fired pizza oven,” he says, “and writing a collection of linked short stories about drought, ranching, neighbors and the contemporary West.”

Drawn to places where people are practicing agriculture in the context of wilderness, he is fascinated by the delicate balance that lets people ranch and farm among wild creatures, in wild landscapes. He and his girlfriend recently spent a month in Costa Rica in the largest remnant of old-growth coastal rainforest north of the Amazon, working with scientists at a remote research station at Osa Conservation. The nonprofit group’s vision closely aligns with Andrews’ own: the desire to see communities thrive through increasing engagement with the natural world.

“The Osa Peninsula is as different from Montana as any place I could imagine, but it’s like you picked up the resource issues of Montana, and dropped them into a jungle,” he says. “We talked about cattle ranching, co-existing with jaguars, banana farming, oil-palm farming, water and subdivisions.”

All undeveloped land, he believes, is forgiving, resilient land. “A rancher can make a decision that turns out not to be the best, but if the ecosystem is intact, the land will recover. Spring will come around. The Montana landscape, like Costa Rica’s, is infinitely complex and interesting. I want my writing to be a little bit like that, too.”

Andrews also wants to move deeper into the world of art and community—not to join the ranks of the new agrarians, but to help inspire young people to be creative thinkers in the context of practical work.

“Perhaps someday,” he says, referring to an idea currently simmering on his back burner, “there’ll be a ranch-based apprenticeship program combining agriculture with a curriculum in ethics, aesthetics, science and writing.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Literature

The Spirit Bird: Stories, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, is Kent Nelson’s latest collection of short fiction. Nelson’s stories feature diverse protagonists—a young single mother, a rabble-rousing Southern lawyer, a restless empty-nester—as well as an unusually vivid sense of place—the chile fields of New Mexico, the resort towns of Colorado, suburban Seattle—that establishes the land as an essential character in the stories. The people in Spirit Bird are trying to break out of their lives, and they share one major trait: dissatisfaction. They’re exploring, pushing boundaries, looking seriously at their own lives and asking, “Really? What now?”

In “Race,” Hakim, a Kansan of Egyptian heritage, is a glassblower living in Colorado. He is middle-aged and divorced; he misses his daughter, uses his talent to make tourist baubles and is viewed with suspicion by many locals, even though he’s been a member in good standing of the local chamber of commerce for 15 years. After Hakim collapses during a half-marathon and is revived, strangers seek him out—what did he see? What did he learn? “I learned how easy it was to die, but how hard it was to go back to the beginning,” he tells them.

In “La Mer de l’Ouest,” Scott Atherton is a white South Carolina lawyer whose new clients, a black couple, want a straw buyer for a house in an exclusive white enclave. Atherton is a liberal in a town where he’s tolerated by the local conservative establishment—until he crosses a line and becomes an activist. His wife accuses him of “glamorizing criminal behavior.” but he defends himself by replying, “The Boston Tea Party was a crime. So was Rosa Parks’ getting on that bus. … Did we not have an obligation to resist what we thought was evil?”

Adult siblings with childhood grievances spend a weekend divvying up their father’s possessions in “Seeing Desirable Things,” a scenario guaranteed to end in catastrophe. Allen, contemplating birds on the beach in the aftermath, stares at one and wonders: “How did it know of danger? ... How did it know where to go in winter, when to leave, how to navigate?” If only we humans could know those things, too.

Birds in this collection represent the self in perpetual motion, forever seeking. Lauren, the birder in the title story, asks what might be the question that underlies the volume: “When the spirit is always on the move, how can it settle?” Nelson seems to suggest that the answer is found in seeking dignity and a measure of social justice—doing your part to create an even field on which to play the game.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Spirit Bird: Stories

By Kent Nelson

University of Pittsburgh Press

336 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

Winds may blow, o’er the icy sea

I’ll take with me the warmth of thee

A taste of honey, a taste much sweeter than wine.

Music aficionados 40 and older are probably familiar with the haunting, Grammy-winning tune “A Taste of Honey,” made famous by Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert, and The Beatles, among others.

However, those music aficionados may not know the guy who penned it: desert resident Ric Marlow. He recently released a compilation of poetry and song lyrics, with a theme of love, called Tastes of Honey.

Born in the Bronx on Dec. 21, 1925, Marlow grew up on Long Island. As he sang, Marlow took other jobs to survive, including hauling cement, building tennis courts and driving a cab. He says his best non-musical job was demonstrating pogo sticks in the toy department at Macy’s. He claims he once sold $17,000 of pogo sticks in one month. Amazingly, Marlow still keeps in touch with the guy who worked next to him on stilts more than 50 years ago.

However, Marlow has always been, first and foremost, a singer.

“It’s an easy gig,” he said.

He was lucky: His musical ambitions were helped along by an aunt who was the secretary to the president of Chappell Music. Through her, he met some big names of the era, including Tommy Dorsey and Harry James.

After high school, Marlow attended New York University, and then joined the Army; his stint lasted a total of seven months. Upon reviewing Marlow’s application for officer candidate school, the Army decided the fractured skull he suffered in a childhood diving accident made him unsuitable.

His vocal talents later took him to Florida, where he married and had a daughter, who is now 68. Then he went back to New York. In between singing gigs, he worked in the garment industry, selling fabric to design houses. After divorcing, Marlow headed to L.A. in 1951. He was entertainment director at an uncle’s dude ranch.

Marlow joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1959, and carved out a successful TV career, with appearances on 46 television shows. He was always robbing someone, killing someone—or being bumped off himself. He appeared on Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges on five separate occasions.

However, his career-defining moment came in 1960. Marlow’s former pianist, Bobby Scott (who many call a genius), had been hired to write incidental music for a new play in New York called A Taste of Honey. The play was written by a young Irish girl named Shelagh Delaney, and the original Broadway version starred Angela Lansbury, Joan Plowright and a very young Billy Dee Williams.

As Marlow puts it, a week before the opening, Scott called Marlow from rehearsal and said: “Marlow, we’re in trouble.” Marlow responded: “What do you mean WE are in trouble?”

Scott explained that the director, Tony Richardson, wanted a ballad at the end of the second act, when the sailor leaves. Scott was stuck, and felt that since Marlow had been at all of the rehearsals, he knew the play well enough to come up with something. That something became “A Taste of Honey.”

The song later became a hit on the radio. It’s been recorded by many great vocalists, including Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams.

It was the version recorded by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass that won the most awards. When the Grammys rolled around in 1966, “A Taste of Honey” won the award for Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Instrumental Performance.

Not bad, especially considering it’s the first song Marlow ever wrote. He said he does not feel it’s even close to being the best song he’s written—but he still smiles when he takes those royalty checks to the bank. In fact, those royalties have allowed him to stop working. Marlow’s last musical show here in the desert was in 2011. He only works with the best local musicians, and says most venues here these days are not willing to pay what they are worth.

His new book, Tastes of Honey, has been a 53-year labor of love, he said. (Fun fact: The title was changed from Come With Me, which the publisher deemed pornographic.) The compilation of poetry and song lyrics focuses on love—wondering about it, finding it, enjoying it, losing it and then dealing with the loss.

I first met Ric Marlow at the Melvyn’s Sunday Jazz Jam, 16 years ago. I had arrived in the desert from Washington, D.C., just two days before. After singing a few tunes with the late, great pianist Andy Fraga, I was heading out the door when this guy came running up behind me with his business card. When he told me he had written “A Taste of Honey,” I was a tad skeptical. I went straight home and searched through my piles of sheet music to check out his story. There it was, in a compilation of pop tunes: “A Taste of Honey,” words by Ric Marlow, music by Bobby Scott.

Ric Marlow and I have been dear friends ever since. A true Sagittarian, he’s blunt, witty and hilarious. One of his pearls of wisdom: “Not everyone’s going to love you. That’s OK—just don’t cater to the assholes.” And at age 89, he can still sing. Friends are planning a big 90th birthday celebration for him in December.

Marlow has been married five times, and widowed once. When asked about his philosophy of life, Ric paused a moment, then recited one of the poems included in the book:

I think I’ve lost my place in time

For here I am, a man of rhyme

Who wiles away the idle hours

Spouting lyrics to the flowers

Thinking thoughts of love, not hate

Not too stupid, not too great

Not too skilled at magic art

Playing life as just a part

Spinning through each lifetime’s maze

In search of purple passion days.

Published in Literature

Just a block off a busy intersection in Albuquerque’s North Valley, a tile-covered two-story house stands like a poem. Mosaic flowers spring from its base, and pueblo-style rainclouds grace the front gable.

For 11 years, Bev Magennis added one ceramic tile after another to her home, not intending from the start to cover the entire building. “I just get on a track,” she says today from her new home, which is tile-less and about a mile away. “I love a long-term project.”

In more than three decades as a visual artist, Magennis created life-sized figures—even a “dome lady” large enough to sleep a family for the night. (At one point, she considered building a series of dome women and creating a sort of motel. Her then-husband was less enthusiastic about the idea.)

In 1993, she left Albuquerque for rural southwestern New Mexico. Catron County is home to Mexican gray wolves, the nation’s first designated wilderness area, generations of Anglo ranching families and a fair amount of social tension—sometimes boiling, sometimes just awkward. And for 17 years, it was home to Magennis, too.

“The land was so great, so quiet,” she says.

But a few years ago, she returned to the city, which she appreciates for its emotional freedom. “I still long for (the country). But I know the reality.”

Many people are tempted to create new lives for themselves in the West’s isolated towns and rural landscapes. But making artwork, building a home or even running a farm are not the same as belonging to a community. Those enchanting little towns aren’t always sustainable places to raise a family or thrive emotionally—especially if you’re an outsider, and a mistrust of outsiders and new ideas persists. Nearly a decade passed, for example, before a local storeowner’s wife—passing change across the counter—almost made eye contact with Magennis, a petite, warm woman who was raised Jewish, grew up in Toronto and describes herself as a “hard-core feminist.”

Magennis came to New Mexico in the mid-1970s as part of Roswell’s Artist-in-Residence Program—it was the best year of her life, she says—and then taught art in Chama. She didn’t start writing until she was in her 60s. After recovering from ovarian cancer, she decided to try her hand at fiction.

Today, she’s no longer constructing giant works of art or tiling houses. Rather, she’s working on a series of books based loosely on life in Catron County. Although they’re not classic mysteries, they do involve murders, missing people and the sorts of things that happen in the rural West when the law is loose and isolation wears away the good sense that people might otherwise possess. Alibi Creek, the first in the series, is set for publication in March 2016.

“When you’re living in a place like that,” where eccentricity is tolerated, she says, but not liberalism, “you do get to a place beyond politics with your neighbors, because you need them. You need someone to talk to.”

And that’s what the main character in Alibi Creek lacks. Lee Ann, who is neither eccentric nor liberal, has no one to talk with as she grapples with an errant brother (the “asshole” character Magennis loves), a dying mother, a disappearing God and controversy over the misuse of federal money at the county commission where she works.

“People are so proud of—and they should be proud of—this great tradition of ranching and surviving and endurance,” she says of her former neighbors. “I mean, those people endure.” But, she adds, rural Westerners can become so locked into their traditions that they can’t see that the world has changed.

“It’s admirable, but sad at the same time.” Magennis mentions, for example, the defiant swagger some people display when insisting they’ll never use computers. “That insistence might make them feel strong. But it’s not actually a strength,” she says. “The more narrow you are, that locks you in.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Literature