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On June 30, 2013, Arizona’s infamous Yarnell Hill Fire overran the Granite Mountain Hotshots, killing 19 firefighters as they crouched beneath their woefully inadequate aluminum shelters.

The tragedy was nearly as mysterious as it was horrific: Minutes earlier, Granite Mountain had been stationed in the secure “black,” already-burned land that couldn’t reignite. Why the hotshots abandoned safety is a question that has spawned two official reports, hundreds of articles and countless Internet-fueled conspiracy theories. Was it incompetent leadership? Hubris? Or a reasonable decision rendered disastrous by a sudden shift in the wind?

Kyle Dickman’s new book, On the Burning Edge, doesn’t provide a definitive answer, but it’s the best account yet of the Yarnell catastrophe. Dickman, a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a former firefighter, is concerned less with how Granite Mountain’s men died than with how they lived. Burning Edge offers an intimate window into the singular culture of hotshots, the men and women who defend America’s public lands with chainsaws, axes and an endless supply of prepackaged meals and chewing tobacco.

Granite Mountain’s members, most of whom are in their 20s, are a study in contradictions: Testosterone-driven in the field and tender at home, hard-drinking and yet eager to join hands and pray “in the soft glow of the dying fire.” We meet Scott Norris, a mentor to younger hotshots who bonds with his girlfriend over their mutual affinity for handguns; Grant McKee, an aspiring paramedic lured by good pay and repulsed by the team’s hazing rituals; and guilt-wracked sole survivor Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a third-year hotshot “with the crew’s longest rap sheet and foulest mouth.” The most complex character is Eric Marsh, the ambitious superintendent who moves his team away from safety and toward the fire’s path—perhaps, Dickman speculates, to impress higher-ups. To some firefighters, Marsh’s mistake was understandable; to others, it was an “egregious and unforgivable error in judgment.”

Still, no one man led the Granite Mountain Nineteen to their deaths. Burning Edge provides a deft synopsis of a century of firefighting malpractice, from the nascent Forest Service stamping out all fires to save valuable timber, to the ascent of the anti-fire mascot Smokey Bear, whose “fame rivaled that of Santa Claus.” By interfering with natural cycles, forest managers permitted brush and saplings to choke meadows, creating a “ladder of fuels” that help low-intensity conflagrations climb into treetops and become mega-fires.

Not until one-third of Yellowstone National Park burned in 1988 did America’s public-land agencies recognize the folly of knee-jerk suppression. Even today, however, firefighters extinguish 98 percent of blazes in their early stages. Though Dickman devotes a few pages to contemporary fire policy, he rarely pulls back to analyze the larger land-use trends that put hotshots in harm’s way, particularly population growth in the wildland-urban interface and landowners who fiercely decry building codes even as they demand that the federal government ride to their rescue. Climate change, which is making the West hotter, drier and more flammable, casts an omnipresent shadow over Burning Edge, but earns little explicit mention in its pages.

In the end, this is a book not about the scientists who study fire, nor the wonks who manage it, but about the grunts who face the consequences. Jesse Steed, GraniteMountain’s captain and an ex-Marine, called hotshotting “the next best thing to the military,” and the parallels are unmistakable: There’s the grueling training, the obsession with equipment, the interminable deployments, the special camaraderie. As Dickman retraces the crew’s final weeks, we eavesdrop on our protagonists in their most private moments: Kevin Woyjeck dancing in the backseat of McKee’s car, Norris slipping away from camp to steal one last shower with his girlfriend, and so on. Knowing the fate that awaits these young men makes their precious happiness almost unbearable; as June 30 draws ever closer, turning the pages starts feeling downright cruel.

When the Granite Mountain hotshots finally reach Yarnell, they’re greeted by “total nonstop chaos.” Three-mile walls of fire roar through the chaparral, and “dozens of propane tanks (send) columns of flames shooting into the air like fires off an oil derrick.” Communications deteriorate as hotshot crews, agencies and commanders tussle for control of radio frequencies. Airplanes and helicopters nearly collide. Granite Mountain, trapped in a canyon, tries desperately to hail air support, which fails to grasp the crew’s predicament until it’s too late.

The Yarnell Hill Fire may have been sparked by lightning, but it was partly a manmade calamity, exacerbated by uncertain hierarchies, miscommunications and breaches in safety protocols. If these 19 deaths accomplished nothing else, perhaps we can use them to improve how the West’s firefighting agencies interact on the line—because more, and bigger, fires are on the way.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It

By Kyle Dickman

Ballantine Books

304 pages, $26

Published in Literature

Snowblind, the first collection of short stories by veteran travel writer and alpinist Daniel Arnold, explores mountaineering and the power it holds over the people who pursue it.

Arnold’s characters are drawn irrevocably to the mountains they climb, and their obsession works strangely on their minds, pushing them into sometimes-terrifying realms of thought and behavior. The locations range from cabins at the base of Mount Hood, in Oregon, to brutal mountains at the edge of human settlement in Alaska. The stories’ protagonists tangle intimately with death in all its many faces, from storm-caused disasters to fatal falls and even suspected murder—as well as the lingering ache of mourning.

Even when death is not imminent, the threat of it hovers at the edges of the stories. In one piece, after a dangerous climb, the mountaineers demolish a centuries-old cabin in a fury of pent-up emotion. In another, a climber’s accidental death drives those waiting at the bottom to drinking—and then to blows.

Both alpinists and those who find their outdoor enjoyment in less-perilous pursuits will recognize the emotional landscape inhabited by Arnold’s characters. The wildness of grief, an encounter with an old flame, the underlying fear of loss—these are experiences common to all.

Still, it’s the otherworldliness of climbing and the jagged beauty of the mountains that most grip the reader. In the collection’s finest story, “Ozdon,” Dane, a climber from Boulder, Colo., and a native of the Wasatch, heads to Alaska to find a lost friend. The mountain where his friend vanished seems “torn from the earth, a bone from below dripping with ice and crusted with jags of black rock.” It ensnares Dane physically and emotionally, drawing him in, as it has other climbers, “like flies to meat.”

But Arnold avoids the traditional narrative arc of nobility and courage in the face of danger. The story of the climb remains unsettling and dark. It raises but never answers the question: What is the reward for all this risk and suffering? And, more important, what is its human cost?

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Snowblind: Stories of Alpine Obsession

By Daniel Arnold

Counterpoint Press

296 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

Montana-based author David Allan Cates plunges us into the raw grief of a recently widowed doctor in his latest novel, Tom Connor’s Gift.

Janine has walked off her shift in a Wisconsin emergency room and driven to a friend’s empty cabin in the Rocky Mountains to confront the emptiness of life without her husband, Mark. She hopes that “the shell of my body will crack and the cold dust inside will blow away in the wind.” A stray puppy appears to keep her company as she revisits her past, reliving her marriage and reading old letters from a man named Tommy Connor, who was her first love, 30 years ago. Meanwhile, outside the cabin, a curious grizzly bear lurks.

This tautly written book, which the Independent Publisher Book Awards just named the year’s best fiction from the Mountain West Region, explores the continuum of human experience, from ecstasy to bone-deep despair. Cates deftly weaves together three strands of life, using Tom’s old letters, Janine’s memories of her husband, and her present experience in a cold, remote corner of Montana. As she reads Tom’s letters, she remembers where she was when she received them; memories of her marriage surface as well. The letters serve as a kind of road map as she journeys through her grief; she ends up reliving her married life in all its complexity, relishing both the bitter and the delightful.

Tom’s letters recount the years he spent living in Central America. He describes the poverty and unrest, but also shares his philosophical meditations and sexual escapades. Back when Janine first received these letters, she had trouble appreciating them; she’d become too frustrated by Tom’s half-crazy alcoholic instability. Now that grief has cracked open her heart, she finds an unexpected treasure in Tom’s words. She reflects, “I feel ashamed at how little I was able to grasp of his struggle, not really to reconcile, but to stay open, to love the world so full of suffering and evil, betrayal and injustice. And isn’t that the work of it? I mean, for all of us? To be brave enough to spread our arms and open our hearts and fill our lungs with the terrible beauty of living? And isn’t that what he ... tried so hard and for so long to do?”

With down-to-earth detail and a refreshingly blunt narrator, Cates delivers a tale of transformation that rises to a crescendo with an unforgettable scene involving the bear. Tom Connor’s Gift is a memorable reminder of the richness available to a wide-open heart.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Tom Connor’s Gift

By David Allan Cates

Bangtail

350 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

Gripping beginnings are said to be a key to successful short stories—but it’s the endings in Thomas McGuane’s Crow Fair that make this collection stand out.

Punchy, surprising, nebulous and even shattering conclusions mark these stories, with finales that can be as spectacular as explosions. McGuane has authored more than a dozen other books, but he hasn’t published a story collection since the acclaimed Gallatin Canyon appeared nine years ago.

In Crow Fair, the longtime Montana resident writes from his home state, pursuing the themes you’d expect to find in such a sparsely populated region: isolation, loneliness and rugged individualism. In “River Camp,” for example, two childhood friends who take a fishing trip to confront their faltering friendship end up facing grave dangers, including a lunatic guide, ravenous bears and death-trap rapids. The differences between the two men become starkly apparent in their reactions as they float away from their camp in a raft: “Tony thought that this was nature at its most benign, shepherding them away from the dreaded camp; but Jack, looking at the dark walls of trees enclosing the current, the ravens in the high branches, felt a malevolence in his bones.”

Despite their vivid Western settings, these stories contain the kind of unexpected, quirky events that could happen anywhere—from the struggle to cope with an aging relative, to something as dramatic as getting duped into a drug deal. In “A Long View to the West,” a used-car salesman juggles his job with caring for a dying father, and in the collection’s title story, two brothers take turns visiting their mother at an assisted-living facility, where her habit of “loudly free-associating about her amorous adventures” gets her banned from the common room during visiting hours.

In a collection that often seems preoccupied with death, McGuane’s darkly comedic style—together with a host of lively characters and surprise happenings—keeps the tone upbeat. If the knockout endings of these stories can help us understand anything about our lives, it’s that death can elicit a myriad of unexpected responses: from sorrow and confusion to a little leap of joy—and maybe, at times, just a feeling of relief.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Crow Fair

By Thomas McGuane

Alfred A. Knopf

288 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature

In 2004, four low-income Mexican-American high school students from Phoenix built an ingenious robot for a science competition that pitted them against teams from top colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The story sounds almost too “Hollywood” to be true, and in fact, it has already inspired a documentary and a feature film. But seasoned journalist Joshua Davis sticks to the facts in his original book, Spare Parts, carefully reconstructing how these ESL students, “caught in the tractor-beam pull of poverty and low expectations,” became one of the top underwater-robot teams in the country.

Davis opens with officials from the Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics Competition, sponsored by NASA and the Navy, grilling the team members. “These kids had shown up with a garishly painted plastic robot that was partially assembled from scrap parts,” Davis writes. “They called their creation Stinky because it smelled so bad when they glued it together.” Yet “Stinky” manages to outperform the sophisticated work of MIT’s best underwater robotics team.

Davis then draws back to tell us about the robot’s creators, illustrating just how improbable it was that these teenagers ever managed to enter this competition. All four were brought to America from Mexico by their parents as children, and only one of them held a green card. Oscar Vasquez excelled in ROTC until he realized that his undocumented status would get in the way of a military career, while Cristian Arcega is a tinkerer with a sharp engineering mind. Lorenzo Santillian joins the robotics team as a way to escape a gang, and Luis Arranda is a taciturn hulk. They are fortunate in their teachers: Iranian immigrant Fredi Lajvardi and former Navy electronics technician Allan Cameron, who encourage their quest.

Davis’ prose is straightforward, but he’s skillful at creating atmosphere and building suspense. You’ll find yourself whipping through the pages to learn what happened—especially how the kids’ lives turned out after the contest.

Davis describes how Lisa Spence, one of the contest judges, felt when she first met the four boys: “As a NASA employee, she had become accustomed to working with engineers who conformed to a sort of industry standard: white, well educated, conservative clothes. These four teenagers standing in front of her signaled that the future looked different.”

One can only hope that this book leads people to question the wisdom of deporting American-raised children of immigrants—especially high-achieving engineering whizzes like these.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream

By Joshua Davis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

240 pages, $14

Published in Literature

John Vaillant, the Canadian author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce—two nonfiction books that delved into the darker aspects of our relationship with nature—now delivers an unflinching novel, his first.

The Jaguar’s Children opens in the back of an empty water truck, where Hector, an undocumented immigrant, languishes with his injured friend César and 13 other crossers just north of the border in Arizona. They’ve been smuggled into the U.S., only to be abandoned between Sonoita and Nogales, sealed inside a tanker by shifty “coyotes,” young machos who “were talking fast all the time, but not as fast as their eyes.”

Using Hector’s cell phone, César repeatedly, but in vain, tries to contact a gringo friend. The situation only gets worse as everyone runs out of water. Within days, the migrants’ strange prison resembles “the intestine of some animal,” digesting its inmates. The reader suffers along with the tanker’s human cargo, surrounded by “walls alive with something that likes to grow in the wet and dark, something that needs much less air than a man.”

A descendant of Zapotecs who revered the jaguar spirit, Hector grew up in Oaxaca, and flashbacks reveal his childhood there, and the reasons why he and his compatriots left. Some fled from the narcos, from violence and corruption; others sought better economic opportunities. Now all they want is to be found, even by La Migra, before they perish of thirst. Hector recalls the church in Altar, the staging ground for their crossing, with its map of red dots that marked where migrants have died. “But when you look north, past the sand and rock and mesquite, toward that wall of mountains with only cactus growing, you still believe you can do it, because who wants to turn back now when you came so far?”

Hector’s monologue inside the tanker consists of his text messages to his friend. His language is leavened with slang and rustic similes, but the cell phone-as-story device feels somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, The Jaguar’s Children shows with compassion how a proud people have become prey for coyotes, victims of capitalism run amok. Mexico’s pyramid builders sacrificed lives to their stone gods; modern Mexico trades them for dollar infusions.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Jaguar’s Children

By John Vaillant

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

288 pages, $26

Published in Literature

The classic Western frontier story is an archetype of the hero’s journey: A young man, off to seek his fortune in the West, enters the wilderness to prove himself—and emerges both stronger and wiser.

Into the Savage Country follows this pattern, but charismatic characters, good humor, lively language and nail-biting scenes make Shannon Burke’s novel feel as fresh and thrilling as the first time this kind of story was told.

In 1826, 22-year-old William Wyeth is a hunter selling furs in St. Louis. He and the eventual love of his life, Alene Chevalier, meet cute, frontier fashion, when he hires her to brain-tan some hides. Wyeth isn’t the only one sweet on Alene—so is Henry Layton, a hot-headed braggart who “could buy you a drink and do a good deed, but he could not do it without others knowing he’d done it.”

William embarks on a fur-trapping expedition, because, he says, “I was fated to test my mettle in the West. If I’d not make a fortune … I’d live my life up to the hilt and satisfy that inner craving and have something to talk about in my dotage.”

He learns from seasoned trappers, including historical figures like legendary mountain men Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger. William observes of Bridger, “Though he was as ignorant of book learning as the day he was born, he possessed all the accomplishments needed west of the Mississippi.”

When William re-encounters Alene and Henry at a U.S. Army fort, Henry invites him to join a Smith-led expedition to Wyoming’s Wind River Range, where wild animals still abound, offering “the last, best chance of a big take.”

Burke vividly conveys the complex interactions between French and American trappers, the Crow, the Blackfoot and British soldiers. Burke’s characters constantly evolve and surprise. Blackfoot warrior Red Elk, for example, at first appears despicable, but emerges as a dignified man of canny intelligence. Even Henry reveals endearing qualities.

Into the Savage Country rings with the conviction that a Western story is supposed to be fun above all—and that it need not sacrifice historical accuracy and complexity in order to entertain the reader.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Into the Savage Country: A Novel

By Shannon Burke

Pantheon

272 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

“Unless you’re into meth or having sex with people you’re related to, you’ll find shit’s pretty boring here” in Idaho Springs, says 16-year-old Margaritte, matter-of-factly, as she introduces a boy to the downtrodden Rocky Mountain town just west of Denver.

Margaritte is the protagonist of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, the debut novel by Colorado native Erika Wurth, a poet who teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University.

Funny, tough, realistic and heartbreakingly foolish, Margaritte is a high school drug dealer on the fast track to teenage motherhood and welfare; her dad, a white man, is drunk and abusive, while her Indian mother ceaselessly forgives and enables him.

Like the author, Margaritte is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee; her best friend is her adopted cousin, Jake. “He’s Nez Perce, Arapahoe, Cheyenne and black. And big.” Margaritte talks tough and acts superior to the other impoverished residents of her town: “I knew where that kind of thinking led. To a doublewide trailer and miles and miles of cheap macaroni and cheese, 10 for a dollar.” However, her knowledge fails to inform her behavior; again and again, she makes the wrong choices.

For nearly 300 pages, Margaritte speeds toward impending doom, pausing along the way for multiple pit stops at the emergency room, a detour to an abortion clinic, various alcohol- and drug-fueled forays, and a flight with her mother and younger twin sisters to a hotel—followed by their drunk, gun-toting father.

Yet Margaritte’s kindness and compassion prevail. Even after her alcoholic father literally drives the family into a ditch during a thunderstorm, she thinks, “Sometimes my sadness for him overwhelmed my resentment, and that was even worse.” She and the new boy fall in love. His family, wealthy and white, buys him expensive outdoor gear, but he’s never slept outside. Margaritte takes him camping on Mount Evans. Sitting beside the campfire, she finds bliss. “I felt so content, so beautiful, parts of me felt like they were dying off, exploding.”

As Margaritte careens into and out of disaster, her strong fingers grip the reader’s heart from the very first sentence, never letting go. She skids close to the edge of unredeemable stereotype, then screeches decisively to a halt, exploding into brilliant humanity.

Exhilarated and terrified, readers of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend will be grateful for the ride.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend

By Erika T. Wurth

Curbside Splendor

288 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

Paolo Bacigalupi grew up in Paonia, Colo., where he was on staff at High Country News. He has won the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards for his writing, and was HCN’s first online editor.

His new book, The Water Knife, grew from a short story he wrote for HCN, “The Tamarisk Hunter.” In his latest novel, Bacigalupi has written a near-future thriller, set in a world where water is scarce, and law is scarcer. Much of humanity is holed up in efficient towers called arcologies; a man named Angel Valasquez, the henchman for a Las Vegas water czar, brutally cuts people away from their water rights. We spoke as we walked along an irrigation ditch above Paonia, its water high from recent rains.

In your future world, what does Paonia look like?

The way I look at Paonia is that it’s built on engineered water. There are a couple of different reservoirs at work, and those engineered pieces of equipment are the way that we maintain our water throughout the dry summers. So what I see is sort of a patchwork of survival, and it’s defined entirely by this other invisible overlay on the valley—which are your legal water rights. All of this depends on the idea that there is legal enforcement and that there is rule of law.

In The Water Knife, that’s breaking down. So in that future, you could very easily see people sitting up on the Paonia dam, saying, “No, we decided that even though there’s a call on the river further down, even though you supposedly have higher rights, we actually sit higher on the river, so we control the water and how much goes down to you.”

Do you feel like you saw the California drought coming when you were starting to write this book?

Statistically, I saw it coming. The climate models say that the South and Southwest should be dead-dry. They’re saying extreme weather is more likely. The statistics are all there. I crafted (this book) to feel near-future. The only future tech that you really see are things that relate to water and water scarcity. That’s deliberate, because you want to feel like this future has relevance to the present—(it’s) not some hypothetical future where you have something like Blade Runner or any other really high-tech science fiction. I’m going to give this to an audience that doesn’t traditionally read science fiction. But I want to do some extrapolation about what water scarcity is, and so we’re going to stay tightly focused on the way we are.

I actually hadn’t felt like I would do any drought stuff or more water or climate change stuff, because I felt like those ideas were out there enough in the zeitgeist, that other people could handle, and I had already done things like “The Tamarisk Hunter,” where I basically explored the core concepts.

It wasn’t until the 2011 drought in Texas, when I was down there seeing these terrible impacts and also seeing this astonishing denial coming from the leadership, that I had this moment where I was like, ‘Wow, I guess this drum needs more beating.’ Rick Perry was praying for rain, and the drought that Texas was experiencing matched climate models. And you’re like: “God didn’t just turn his back on you; this is just us dumping carbon into the atmosphere and making situations like this really statistically likely.” I felt a certain rage, that we were still living in this reality freefall.

Tell me how you settled on a “water knife,” the job of someone who cuts people from their rights, and the relationship between Angel Valasquez and Catherine Case, who’s a sort of Patricia Mulroy type, the queen of the Colorado River.

When you’re writing about things like drought or climate change, or water or water rights, you’re stuck in this abstract, nonvisceral space. Even scarcity gets written about in some weird, cliché ways: Everybody turns upon themselves, and they’ll tear each other down. And you’re like, well, no, there still are government bodies, organizational values, identity politics. And without those specifics, you’ve really written another cliché apocalypse novel.

I wanted to make the legal structure of water rights more apparent. I wanted to make the idea of water scarcity, and how there are cascades of winners and losers, more apparent. Having somebody like Angel Valasquez gives you a way to do that that’s more like a thriller and more fun than if you just have a bunch of lawyers sitting around a table talking about, “We’re going to give these people an extra 50,000 acre-feet of water, and we’re going to engineer this water trade where so-and-so will install a water saline treatment plant in return for giving back X amount of their river allocation”—which doesn’t make for good fiction. Angel’s the action-hero version of water rights.

In this world, Vegas is weak in comparison to California, but it’s smart in comparison to places like Phoenix. Vegas is the city that looked around in this very clear-eyed way and said, “Wait, we have terrible water rights. We only think it’s going to get worse. What do we need to do to buffer ourselves against disaster?” Eventually, Catherine Case, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in the story, says, “You know what? Those subdivisions, they’re wasting money, they’re gone. We’re pulling all the water into our arcologies instead; we’re going to hunker down here.”

How does that play into the idea that we’re better off living in urban areas, where everything’s packed together, and where we can consolidate our resources, like water, rather than live in sprawling communities?

The arcologies are really, really efficient. They’re built to take in things and keep them as long as possible, to recycle all of their waste, to recycle all their water to grow food for themselves, to take advantage of every synergy that they can, of being tightly packed together and very well designed. But they’re also a symptom of a problem, which is the moment that humanity accepts that the world outside is no longer an inviting and supportive and sustaining place for people. So arcologies are also the wrong techno solution to a much bigger problem.

When we say we need big cities because it’s more efficient, it’s like, maybe we need less people. This is a tradition of ours—that we never solve our source problems. We’re never going to say, “Now that there’s climate change, let’s actually tax carbon; let’s really cut back on our coal consumption; let’s tax all of our plane travel hard; let’s actually not add any more heat to the atmosphere.” What we do instead is build arcologies, and we get ready for our devastated future, but we don’t actually avoid our devastated future.

Where’s the optimism in The Water Knife?

A friend of mine told me that I must be an optimist; otherwise, I wouldn’t be so disappointed every time things go wrong. But I think when you look at (climate) data or that Lake Mead just had its lowest levels ever, those are indicators that say we aren’t solving problems. So (injecting optimism) is like setting markers out there that define waypoints toward what might be smart.

The thing that I’m most interested in doing is comparing the outcomes between people who’ve decided to live inside of nostalgia and live inside of denial about their present moment and where the future is taking them—and those people who are going, “I don’t like the look of this stuff. It looks pretty dangerous. I need to make some moves, and I need to be planning.” So the marker that you’re trying to set out there is: People who are reality-based and data-driven survive. Reality-based people, they do a lot better than the people who are living in denial.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Knopf

384 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature

As The High Divide opens in 1886, Gretta Pope’s husband, Ulysses, a U.S. Army veteran, has been missing for six weeks. She’s left with two sons to raise, past-due rent, and no idea about where he might have gone—or when he’ll be back.

An odious landlord begins to circle Gretta, demanding payment in more than money. Then Gretta’s son, 16-year-old Eli, intercepts a letter to his father from a woman in Bismarck, suggesting that Ulysses recently visited her. Eli sneaks out of the family home in Sloan’s Crossing, Minn., and hops a freight train heading west to find his father—but his sickly 9-year-old brother guesses his plan and follows. Meanwhile, Gretta embarks on her own travels and investigations.

Minnesota novelist Lin Enger switches to the perspective of a different family member in each chapter, updating us on their individual odysseys and making it clear that the members of this family love each other deeply and want to be together, even though their lack of communication has split them apart and left them racked by doubts about everything.

The boys and Gretta are astonished to learn that Ulysses re-enlisted after the Civil War and served in Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment, which was notorious for killing women and children in Indian villages. Ulysses’ recent erratic behavior appears to spring from his secret past; he is clearly haunted by something that happened when he was in the military.

As she seeks her husband, Gretta rebukes herself for not delving into Ulysses’ past sooner: “If only she had been able to summon the strength to draw the poison out of Ulysses. … But she had been raised to believe that a man’s burdens were meant for him alone to carry.”

In The High Divide, the West at the time is swiftly transforming from a savage, bloodthirsty land into a settled place where the only remnants of the bygone, unfettered West are the buffalo bones that litter the prairie, which men scavenge for quick money. Yet this changing land will serve as a proving ground for Ulysses’ growing sons.

In clear, vivid prose, Enger describes the family’s journeys, expanding the story of the search for one man into an investigation of the West’s conscience at a time when men had recently decimated its native peoples and fauna, and were just beginning to reap the consequences. In the process, he tells a tender story of love, sorrow and the quest for redemption.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The High Divide

By Lin Enger

Algonquin

352 pages, $24.95 (hardcover), $15.95 (paperback)

Published in Literature