Coming of Age in the North Woods

Winter Loon     Susan Bernhard     (2019)


The loon, a large migratory aquatic bird, can be spotted in the far northern reaches of Minnesota,  Wisconsin, and Michigan (and up into Canada) only in the height of summer. The cry of a loon echoing across a lake is haunting and unforgettable, emblematic of long days in the North Woods. But if you spot a loon in these parts in the winter, the bird is probably injured and is unlikely to survive.

Wes Ballot, the teenage first-person narrator of this novel, is perhaps like a winter loon in rural Minnesota—disoriented, separated from his family, facing grim odds for survival. On the very first page, Wes’s mother falls through the ice of a semi-frozen Minnesota lake and drowns, just out of the reach of Wes’s outstretched arm. If you’re a reader who, like me, has a hard time with fictional death scenes, you may waver in committing to the story, but I’d encourage you to read on, as the path of Wes’s life winds twistingly toward adulthood.

When Wes’s father deserts him, supposedly to find work, Wes is left to live with his insensitive maternal grandparents. A local Native American family is sympathetic toward him, and Wes is smitten with a member of this clan, Jolene, who’s also had a tough life.  “She smiled at me then, a funny, crooked, closed-mouth sideways smile that I would later try to imitate in the mirror. It was like she could see something in me that I didn’t know about, and I wanted to try on that expression so I could know it, too.” (98)

Although Wes has plenty of setbacks, he keeps seeking to learn the facts about his troubled parents, particularly on classic road trips through the American West. “I tried to organize my thoughts, but the miles I’d traveled logged in my veins and I could feel the tire treads rumbling the marrow like I was still driving.” (279)

Some of the people Wes Ballot meets are selfish and cruel. Well, no, a lot of the people he meets are selfish and cruel, and sadly, many teens around the globe find this to be the case. But a few people are generous and kind. Wes doesn’t give up looking for the people who will affirm his worth.


California Dreamin'

The Golden State     Lydia Kiesling    (2018)


Daphne, the first-person narrator and main character in this novel, is the mother of a sixteen-month-old girl nicknamed Honey. She’s also the wife of Engin, who was wrongly deported to his native Turkey eight months before the story begins. And she’s an administrator at the fictional university-based Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations in San Francisco.

After a devastating incident at the Institute, Daphne is at the end of her rope on both the career and parenting fronts. She packs up Honey and heads to a remote rural area in northern California, to a small house that she’s inherited. The people she meets there include a 92-year-old woman on a personal quest and a group of libertarians who want the region to secede from the state of California. Tapping into unreliable internet connections, Daphne sends email excuses to her boss back in San Francisco and phones her husband in Turkey, all the while trying to figure out what path she wants to take for the rest of her life.

Novelist Lydia Kiesling pokes at and deflates a number of contemporary cultural beliefs in this candid novel.

  • The total bliss of early motherhood? Jab. Daphne feeds Honey, diapers her, reads to her, bathes her, kisses her, soothes her when she falls on her face, and straps her into car seats and strollers as she strenuously resists being strapped in. The sentences in which these activities appear are often lengthy and lacking punctuation. With this writing technique, Kiesling is conveying the unremitting and often overwhelming demands of child care.

  • The purity of purpose at major universities? Jab. A sample: “The more education you have the more removed you are from the ineluctable yawning core of work at the University, which is not in fact teaching but is the filling out and submission and resubmission of forms, the creation of scheduling Doodles, the collection of receipts and the phoning of caterers, the issuing of letters and the ordering of supplies and the tallying of points in poorly formatted spreadsheets.” (38)

  • The basic fairness of American immigration enforcement? Jab.

  • The universal good-heartedness of rural Americans? Jab.

  • The excellence of off-the-beaten-path diners? Jab.

The “golden state” of the title clearly refers to California, and Kiesling provides lovely scenes of areas in California that seldom appear in fiction. But it’s also possible that this title is obliquely referring to the representation of motherhood as golden, or of our American political system as golden. Check it out, through the eyes of Daphne.



Miracles in MN and ND

Peace Like a River     Leif Enger     (2001)

Enger Peace.jpg

Most of the religions of the world have in their histories or traditions the working of miracles, perhaps because humans want to believe that the usual unrelenting laws of the universe can sometimes be subverted. Peace Like a River is a book about miracles, but novelist Leif Enger doesn’t proselytize. Right up front, on page 3, his narrator, Reuben Land, writes, “Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.”

Reuben is an eleven-year-old asthmatic boy living in rural Minnesota with his younger sister (Swede), his older brother (Davy), and his father (Jeremiah, the one who performs the miracles) in the year 1962. After their small town’s two bullies engage in an escalating series of episodes of battering and vandalism, Davy strikes back and ends up in jail. When Davy’s trial seems to be going against him, he escapes, managing to evade both officers of the law and a civilian posse. His family sets off to find him, figuring that he might be hiding out in the rugged Badlands of the neighboring state of North Dakota. The family encounters several distinctive characters on their quest, and the story—after taking turns toward love, fear, hope, and loss—builds to a shocking conclusion.

This forward-driving narrative line alone would be sufficient to keep the interest of many readers, but Enger adds much more. Jeremiah’s miracles, some of which might be odd coincidences, appear when they’re least expected, as the family’s road trip to the Badlands takes on qualities of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Reuben is an unpretentious first-person storyteller who inspires reader confidence in his truthfulness, and his version of 1962 is accurate without feeling forced. His language can be rich: “Once in my life I knew a grief so hard I could actually hear it inside, scraping at the lining of my stomach, an audible ache, dredging with hooks as rivers are dredged when someone’s been missing too long.” (54) He frequently includes galloping verse, based on the lore of the Old West, which he presents as written by Swede, who is unusual in both her name and her precocity.

I sought out Peace Like a River, Leif Enger’s debut novel, after placing his most recent offering, Virgil Wander, on my Favorite Reads of 2018 list. Enger’s prose style has developed in seventeen years, but his writing was already powerful in 2001, and if you’re familiar with the Upper Midwest, you may feel an extra zing. For the record, you don’t  have to believe in miracles to love this novel.

The American Frontier

West     Carys Davies     (2018)


The plot is preposterous, the characters are peculiar, and the language is spare. Yet Carys Davies’ West will surely make my list of “Favorite Reads of 2018.” Davies spins a tale that’s akin to ancient myth, set on the North American continent in about 1815. This was an era when the lure of the western frontier was irresistible to some people living in the East.

One of these people is Cy Bellman, a mule breeder in central Pennsylvania, who reads in a newspaper about the discovery in Kentucky of the bones of gigantic animals. Cy convinces himself that living exemplars of these animals still roam in the farthest reaches of the continent, driven west by settlement. Cy, who is a widower, leaves his young daughter, Bess, in the care of his unmarried sister and sets off to the west. He hopes to find some amazing creatures if he ventures a ways off the paths that Lewis and Clark traversed in their 1804-06 expedition through the Louisiana Purchase.

The narrative of West alternates between the experiences of Cy in the wilderness (perils: hunger, animal attack, Indian attack, winter) and the experiences of Bess in Pennsylvania (perils: predatory men, clueless aunt, lack of education). Davies builds tension artfully. She pauses in her rapid narrative sweep for descriptions at moments that capture the extremity of the threats to both Cy and Bess. Here is Cy at the end of his first winter on the road: 

“One night he heard the ice booming and cracking in the river, and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.” (21)

Despite the harsh conditions, Cy continues to be obsessed with getting a sighting of monstrous animals. But there’s also a general wanderlust at work. He muses:

“Should he have stayed in England, in the narrow lanes and what now seemed like the miniature hills of his youth, everything small and dark and cramped and a feeling inside himself that he would burst if he did not escape? Even then, a little of that prickling feeling, the vertigo; a longing for what he’d never seen and didn’t know.” (111)

A central theme of European and American literature has always been the journey, the pilgrimage, the hero’s voyage. Cy’s trip is set against the dangers for stay-at-home Bess. And uniting these two stories is a third key character, who signs on as a guide for Cy: “An ill-favored, narrow-shouldered Shawnee boy who bore the unpromising name of Old Woman From A Distance.” (27)

I was hesitant to dip into this little novel because I was suspicious of a Brit writing about early America. Such foolish prejudice I displayed! Carys Davies has produced an amazing portrait of frontier life circa 1815, but that’s only the backdrop to her exploration of ambition, fear, lust, weariness, greed, and familial affection. Read this book soon, in one sitting.

For another British novel about early America, see my review of Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. For another novel about a frontier journey, try Paulette Jiles’s News of the World.

A Hoot of a Mystery

Celine     Peter Heller     (2017)

Peter Heller’s latest is both a mystery novel and a study of his title character. Celine Watkins is still working as a private investigator at age 68, in spite of her emphysema. She specializes in finding missing persons, especially in reuniting adoptees with their birth families. Celine is feisty, mouthy, clever, brave, discerning, blue-blooded, compassionate, stylish. She’s a hoot.

The story line involves a client, Gabriela, who wants to know what happened to her father, a renowned photographer, some twenty years past. He disappeared near Yellowstone National Park, either killed and consumed by a grizzly—or not. Celine and her longsuffering husband and sidekick, Pete, head west from their home base in Brooklyn, stopping in Denver to borrow Celine’s son’s camper and some firearms. And then we’re into the wilderness. Celine and Pete uncover more and more chilling secrets of the case, on their laptop, through phone calls, and in quirky small-town diners along the way. Celine relishes the danger. She seems to have overcome any fear of death, since she can see her health slipping away, and what the hell, she would have died long ago if she hadn’t sworn off the booze. It helps that she’s a crack shot.

The nature writing in Celine is top-notch, which makes sense, since Heller has published four major nonfiction books on adventure travel at the ends of the earth. A sample: “The sun sets behind mountains but the cloudless sky that is more than cloudless, it is lens clear—clear as the clearest water—holds the light entirely, holds it in a bowl of pale blue as if reluctant to let it go. The light refines the edges of the ridges to something honed, and the muted colors of the pines on the slopes, the sage-roughened fields, the houses in the valley—the colors pulse with the pleasure of release, as it they know that within the house they too will rest.” (94) Yup, that’s the golden hour in the American West.

Celine offers up a zany detective, zippy if farfetched dialogue, a serviceable mystery plot, eccentric supporting characters, and gorgeous descriptive passages. Add some flashbacks that fill in Celine’s earlier life, and those pages flip by quickly.

Rodeo for Russian Americans

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo     Boris Fishman     (2016)

Despite the title, this novel is not primarily about rodeo, but it does have something to do with babies—specifically babies who are adopted. It’s also about the experience of Russian and Ukrainian émigrés in the United States and about a road trip through the American West. Novelist Boris Fishman assembles all these pieces skillfully.

Maya Shulman, a Ukrainian exchange student, and Alex Rubin, the only son of Russian immigrants, meet in New York in 1992. They marry and settle in New Jersey but are unable to have children. Over the objections of Alex and his parents, Maya pushes for adoption. The baby they adopt is the biological son of teenagers in Montana; the baby’s father is a rodeo cowboy. The one request of the biological mother to the adoptive parents is “Don’t let my baby do rodeo.”

By the year 2012, Maya and Alex begin to interpret some of the actions of their eight-year-old adoptive son, Max, as a reversion to his genetic origins. Maya especially becomes alarmed when Max runs away from home and when he “consorts with wild animals.” She worries that he’s becoming “feral” and insists on a car trip to Montana to seek out Max’s biological parents, hoping that they can shed light on Max’s “wildness.”

Readers may not see Max’s habits as particularly unusual for an inquisitive child. Max likes to sleep in a tent in the back yard, chew on various wild grasses, and put his face in river water to look at the pebbles and fish. One scene, in which Max cavorts with some deer in his back yard, could be taken as a bit of magic realism or could simply reflect the ubiquity and tameness of urban deer in New Jersey.

Around the main plot of the trip to Montana Fishman weaves subplots, particularly related to the influence of Alex’s parents on the marriage of Maya and Alex. Fishman pokes fun at his own Russian heritage in his portrayal of Alex’s immigrant parents. The elder Rubins have built a successful business and assimilated into American culture in many ways, but they eat traditional Russian foods, quote Russian proverbs, and oppose the adoption of Max for patriarchal cultural reasons. Maya struggles with her identity as an American wife and mother, always seeking to add new words to her English vocabulary, for example, yet chafing under some of the Old World attitudes of her husband and in-laws. In the end, she rebels against her family in a startling way.

Fishman’s writing is dense with words that are often crammed into tight sentences. This style can be rich, as when he is describing the dawn in South Dakota: “. . .the subfusc prologue of the morning was pushing up the black sky with impatience.” (249) And here is a vista in Montana: “First, there were hills, patchy and tentative, then, all of a sudden, mountains upon mountains. Maya eyed them with gratitude; she willed them to keep rising. Even Max stirred at their sight, leaning into his window. Emerald firs rose off the flanks in neat rows like heads in a choir, the cottonwoods among them so gold they looked like bullion bars.” (260)

My eye did catch occasionally on oddities of English word choice—“custom” instead of “habit, “unexisting” instead of “nonexistent,” “self-made” instead of “homemade,” and so forth. I expected these choices in the dialogue of characters whose native language was not English, but they cropped up in non-dialogue. This is a minor quibble about a book that forthrightly tackles such fraught issues as infertility, parenting an adopted child, and adapting to a new culture.

A Trip Across Texas

News of the World     Paulette Jiles     (2016)

Before the news of the world arrived on little screens, it came in newspapers. But in North Texas in 1870, even newspapers were scarce, and some people couldn’t afford them or didn’t have sufficient reading skills to get through the articles.

Enter Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who makes a meager living by giving public readings from newspapers. At age 71, Captain Kidd is tall and distinguished looking. A veteran of two wars who has also lived through the Civil War, he has the skills to survive traveling around rough and tumble Texas. Native tribes are still violently resisting the incursions of white settlers, and brutal Reconstruction policies have led to anarchy out on the dusty plains and hill lands.

After a newspaper reading in the North Texas town of Wichita Falls, Captain Kidd is asked to take on the task of delivering a ten-year-old orphan to her aunt and uncle, way down in South Texas, near San Antonio. This orphan has been redeemed from the Kiowa Indians, who had abducted her four years previously, when they slaughtered the rest of her family. The Captain is an honest and kindly man, the widowed father of two adult daughters, so he agrees to make the perilous trip.

The girl, who was named Johanna by her biological parents, has been thoroughly acculturated into Kiowa ways. She can’t speak English, but she makes her displeasure at being removed from her Indian family clear with acts of sabotage at the start of the journey. As the Captain and Johanna travel southward, the Captain realizes that the skills Johanna learned while living among warriors can come in handy on the dangerous trails.

This novel could have become a sentimental version of the American journey narrative, so I ventured past Chapter One warily. I was rewarded with Paulette Jiles’s spare prose that beautifully evokes the frontier, and also with her intriguing conjectures about the psychology of victims of abduction, both during and after their captivity. In an author’s note, Jiles directs readers to The Captured, a nonfiction book by Scott Zesch, which recounts the struggles of some of the children actually abducted by Plains Indians during the nineteenth century. I had not been aware of this page of American history.

I was intrigued by Jiles’s representation of the way Captain Kidd teaches Johanna English, with a little German thrown in, since her birth family was German American. As Johanna becomes more and more adept at English, the phonetic transcriptions of the bright child’s pronunciations change. Jiles values words—spoken words, unspoken words, cruel words, kind words, English words, Kiowa words.  

News of the World reminded me very much of the 2014 movie The Homesman, which is set on the Northern Plains in the same era and involves a similar journey. News of the World and The Homesman share a grittiness, and both explore the fragility and complexity of the human mind. Unlike the movie, however, News of the World takes us forward in time in the final chapter, offering a glimpse of the characters’ future, after the denouement of the central story. When I’ve become attached to fictional characters, I want to see how their lives play out, and this last chapter left me fully satisfied.

Old Money, New Money

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty   Ramona Ausubel     (2016)

Ramona Ausubel seems to have several goals for her novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. She’s trying to explain what it feels like to be a rich kid who’s not comfortable with riches. She’s narrating a deep love between an Old Money kid and a New Money kid, contextualizing them in their families. She throws in a Great American Road Trip. There are some off the wall sub-plots, like the re-enactments of pre-Columbian Native American life. And there are the quirky elements, like the character who’s a giant, and the fawn that happens to die in a suburban back yard at a critical point in the plot.  

Fern and Edgar Keating and their three children are closing out a wonderful summer at their beach house on Martha’s Vineyard, all shimmering seas and sandy toes and billowing sails. Suddenly, they receive news that Fern’s Old Money, on which they live lavishly, is totally gone. Fern and Edgar have always hated the money; Edgar has even written an anti-capitalist novel. But they know of no other way to survive. Each freaks out in a separate way, but the consequence is that they unintentionally leave their nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old twin sons alone in their huge brick Colonial house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for several days.

If you think that this sounds like the 1990 Christmas movie Home Alone, you’re right. But it’s a little more believable because the year is 1976, when kids walked to school by themselves and wandered their neighborhood by themselves.

The novel shifts back and forth between the 1976 existential family crisis and the period 1965-1970, when Fern and Edgar met, fell in love, and dealt with the Vietnam War. For Americans who came of age during that war, all aspects of life were shaped by the draft notices, the transport planes to Southeast Asia, the flag-draped coffins on the nightly news, the maneuvering of exemptions for a few, the protests, the beleaguered veterans.

Although Ausubel gets much of the Vietnam-era tone right, she falters on the details. As just one example, in 1966, Fern’s brother, Ben, could have had an exemption from the draft for attending college. Everyone knew this, and any male high-school graduate even marginally qualified for college enrolled. Nervous parents, especially wealthy ones, made sure of this. If an author creates a fictional universe, historical fact doesn’t have to be part of the game. But if an author anchors her story in an actual universe, wrong details are jarring.

I appreciate the magic realism in Ausubel’s tale. After all, the wealthy can seem permanently glittered over with fairy dust. But the mysterious appearances of pie slices at many roadside diners can seem forced in a plot that’s grounded in quotidian family life. And Ausubel doesn’t wrap up a number of sub-plot forays. What really happened with that kiss in the darkened girls’ bathroom? Did Edgar go back to the family business or not? Did anybody call Animal Control about that dead fawn in the back yard? 

Ausubel has some lovely metaphors, tossed off seemingly casually. And her descriptors—of window molding or hair style or suit jacket—are apt but always spare enough to keep the plot bounding along. I turned the 306 pages with enthusiasm, anxious to know what happened to Fern and Edgar and the gang. In the end, though, this good novel lacked the full power that I think Ausubel was capable of.