Books: Writing the West (Summer 2013)

The River Swimmer

The River Swimmer (Grove Press; $25) by the estimable Jim Harrison is actually two wee books in one — a pair of memorable novellas about two curious men, their unfulfilled promise, their regrets and longings, their concerns for and with the natural world. The stories are also very much about the characters’ own oversaturated emotional worlds filled with fear and doubt and the hopelessness of hope. And yet … they share ultimately uplifting elements.

Clive, protagonist of the first story, The Land of Unlikeness, is a sad, self-important, world-weary man. He looks back on a life he considered partially frittered away, but that began bright with creative promise. He has returned as an adult to his family home in Michigan only to find that nothing (not that he expects much) has changed.

Early in the story, he is literally driving back toward that childhood: “He recalled with immoderate reverence his burgeoning love at age 10 for looking at paintings and listening to classical music, the lack of mind in his pleasure. How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.”

After a substantial immersion in Clive’s self-induced woes, the opening sentences of chapter 11 of that same first novella are refreshing: “Clive woke at dawn having lost his self-importance. He didn’t know where it had gone but it wasn’t in him anymore.” That notion ushers in a welcome subtle shift in Clive’s outlook and demeanor in the second half. We spend the remainder of the story riding shotgun as Clive discovers all is not hopeless, that he may yet regain some of that early shine he thought he had lost forever.

Thad, the protagonist of the title novella, The River Swimmer, is a young man, poised at the beginning of what looks to be an intriguing life. Giving a literal interpretation to the story’s title, Harrison calls Thad a “water obsessive.” That’s putting it mildly — this inveterate swimmer was born and raised on an island in the middle of a Michigan river, and has befriended what he calls “water babies,” infant-sized merchildren over whom he obsesses. If this sounds fantastical, it’s meant to. It feels as though Harrison had a grand time in writing this strange imitation of a story, part magical realism and part fable.

Thad fantasizes about swimming various locales all over the world, including around Manhattan Island: “He had recently checked the water current and it struck him as a simple feat. Nearly all of his swimming was done in near-wilderness conditions and he liked the idea of swimming past immense buildings and millions of people. As a student of the natural world he did not ignore the works of man who in his view was nature too, so said Shakespeare who also seemed a mystery to Thad along with his mother’s Mozart collection.”

As with much of Harrison’s work, this story is filled with passages that feel like lost truisms, as on page 163: “Thad had been chewing on his wonderful fried chicken thinking that humans are ill-prepared for the miraculous. It’s too much of a jolt and the human soul is not spacious enough to deal with it. What happens when we sense and see the eternal in the ordinary present?”

The River Swimmer is at once exciting and bizarre, roiling as we are in the head of a teenage boy who is old and young, confused and centered, and yet who ruminates in decidedly teenage ways: “It seemed comic to him that people desire miracles but when they get them it adds an extremely confusing element to life. Maybe Lazarus didn’t want to come back to life.”

The author’s characters frequently suffer from an odd ennui, as if they are at once too much in the world and also removed from it, scrutinizing it through emotions of their own making, suspicious and weary, angry and resigned, surprised and surly, and always familiar to readers.

Harrison’s involved, at times girthy writing excels in the short form — poetry, essays, short stories and, as with The River Swimmer, in novellas. So much of his work bares recurrent treats, from lofty themes to frequent quiet, poetic revelations, that even a snippet plucked at random demonstrates the promise within — from page 85, in describing the shapes of willow trees: “They simply sprawled in their lives like humans.” Such seemingly simple lines are why I continue to enjoy Jim Harrison’s writing. His is the fresh language of the familiar, the poetry of living.


Dark Prairie

Dark Prairie (Five Star Frontier Fiction; $25.95), by Spur Award-winning Wyoming author John D. Nesbitt, is a journey of discovery through thinking reader’s terrain, rich in the author’s trademark spare, tight writing and weighty with strong themes. Those explored range from curiosity stunted into obsession and revenge gone wrong, to a man’s quest for honesty and truth, spurred on by an innate goodness that’s as refreshing and as real as the quietly fulsome Wyoming landscape the author guides us through. Nesbitt’s dialogue is human and genuine, and sounds as if it could have unspooled around a post-meal cook-shack table or from across a smoky, crackling campfire, coyotes yipping in the darkening distance.

Longtime fans of Nesbitt’s writing, be it his tasteful noir-tinged short stories, his numerous novels or his poetry, have come to expect a thoughtful read, full of depth and consideration. The author, himself a son of the American West, renders a memorable scene with the simplest of brushstrokes, as with this plain-spoken passage on page 105: “The four of us got down from our horses and sat in a small pow-wow circle right there on the open plain. We had all taken off our jackets by then, and the overhead sun warmed the ground while a breeze from the east carried the scent of sage and dry grass to mix with the smell of warm horses. It was a peaceful setting, but I could see that Odell was irritable.”

The author’s publisher bills this fine effort as “frontier mystery,” and while it is a sun-baked, who-dun-it on horseback, to leave it at that would do a great disservice to Nesbitt and his writing. On the surface the set up is familiar: In an 1890s summer on the plains of Wyoming, a stranger rides into town and proceeds to flip over rocks, and in the process annoy a whole lot of folks who may or may not be up to something.

But as the old saw goes, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” and so it is with Dark Prairie. This is strong stuff, slow to boil and in that sense a realistic representation of life’s many layers and subtleties. Stir in intriguing subplots involving a missing girl, potential romantic liaisons among major players and the very real threats of looming violence, and you have an addictive period Western-crime novel, something John D. Nesbitt has become known for. And as Dark Prairie demonstrates, it is a distinction well earned.

The Hidden Life of Wolves

The Hidden Life of Wolves (National Geographic Books; $25) by Jim and Jamie Dutcher, is a stunning, full-color exploration of what may be the most intimate and extended-length interaction of humans and wolves ever documented. The book begins with a foreword by actor and advocate of the natural world, Robert Redford, and helps set the stage for this important and timely topic: “When European settlers ventured west … [they] established themselves as the dominant predator, confronting much of the competition, both animal and human. The barrels of their guns readied the land for the blades of their plows and the arrival of their livestock. … they also carried old myths and fears from the world they left behind.”

He tells how all of our beloved domesticated dogs descended from the same genetic background as wolves, the very dogs we allow to “ride in the front seats of our cars, help herd our livestock, go with us to war, are fed gourmet meals, and are even invited to sleep in the beds of our children. By contrast, wolves are irrationally demonized, tortured by traps and snares, shot and poisoned along with their pups, they are accused of a remarkable range of evil behavior, based on stories passed down since the Middle Ages, fairy tale by fairy tale.”

That said, the book is hardly a rant against those who would seek the wolf’s demise. Rather, The Hidden Life of Wolves is a level look at a fascinating animal that deserves our respect, not our blind fear. Every important aspect of these complex creatures is explored — their rich social lives, their pack and individual traits, their playfulness, their inherent intelligence, their beauty, their history before and after men, their ranges, man’s perceptions and misperceptions of them, the reverence of wolves by native people, the irreverence of white Europeans toward them, and more.

The book also examines the fallout from the U.S. Congress’s unfortunate 2011 decision, to delist the creature from the Endangered Species Act — for the first time in the act’s 37-year history. And not as the result of a vote, but tacked on as a rider to the federal budget bill. The result? Within a year, Idaho’s meager wolf population of 1,000 animals was reduced by more than 50 percent. In 2011, Montana was close behind with a limited season on its 566 wolves, 230 of which were killed the first year. Wyoming, too, is getting in on the action and may soon allow up to 83 percent of its wolf population to be killed, year-round and with no license required, classifying wolves as “vermin.”

And yet, sheep and cattle killed by wolves account for “far less than 1 percent of the damage, yet they receive 90 percent of the attention and anger. Bad weather, disease, and birthing complications kill vastly more livestock than all predators combined, yet no one is suggesting that we try to change the weather to save a few sheep.” Compelling arguments and difficult to take issue with — unless you have a vested financial interest in doing so. In an effort to keep ranchers happy, these states are working to maintain wolf populations just above the figures required by the federal government to keep the wolf from being relisted on the endangered species list.

One of the quotes that best sums up the book’s intent comes from L. David Mech, senior research scientist for the U.S. Depatment of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey: “The wolf is neither man’s competitor nor his enemy. He is a fellow creature with whom the earth must be shared.”

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs (Houghton Mifflin; $28). After Ted Kerasote’s excellent book about life with, and the loss of his dog, Merle (Merle’s Door (2007), Kerasote began a long, slow search for another dog with whom he might share his life. Shortly after Merle’s Door was published, however, he began receiving letters from dog lovers the world over all asking the same thing: “Why must our dogs die so young?”

When he began digging for answers, Kerasote’s findings were startling and revealing: Largely because of well-intentioned but misguided genetic stewardship over the most popular of dog breeds, our dogs are dying much younger than they should. A steady narrowing of genetic pools has left us with dogs prone to myriad cancers, hip dysplasia, brain tumors and a litany of other heartbreakingly preventable ailments. Consider these sad facts: “By the age of ten, 75 percent of the insured Saint Bernards were dead, and so were 75 percent of the Bernese Mountain Dogs. Eighty-three percent of the Great Danes had also passed away, as well as a depressing 91 percent of the Irish Wolfhounds.”

As Kerasote learned about dogs, about science and about human intrusion, he documented his journey and findings. The result, Pukka’s Promise, explores numerous topics, from nuts-and-bolts issues to more esoteric points. In it, he questions many aspects of modern dog rearing, then offers a number of logical solutions designed to help a dog live well past its expected age range.

Why do we feed dogs kibbles — largely corn based — when such food doesn’t occur in the wild? Kerasote explains that dogs who eat a raw diet comprised of protein and vegetables are far healthier than dogs forced to eat grain-based and corn-based diets. Why do we vaccinate our beloved pups so much (too much) and so frequently? The author contends that many vaccinations are not only unnecessary, but are detrimental and often lead to cancers and other unfortunate, and frequently fatal, side effects. And birth control methods, Kerasote argues, should not include spaying and neutering, which rob the dog of vital, naturally occurring sex hormones they’ll require throughout their lives to help combat a number of diseases.

The book is a powerful work born of passion for canine companionship. Readers — dog lovers and everyone else — will find themselves engrossed, as much by Kerasote’s effortless prose and personable writing style as by his subtle way of unrolling vast amounts of impressive and important information about dogs, genetics, human tampering and humans’ well-intentioned but misguided efforts at creating designer dogs. Just as important, Pukka’s Promise is also about how Kerasote eventually overcame his grief and found another dog with whom he felt he could share his life. Readers will come to know Pukka as Kerasote does — and will no doubt fall in love with this zesty canine companion, too.

An Eternity of Eagles: The Human History of the Most Fascinating Bird in the World

An Eternity of Eagles: The Human History of the Most Fascinating Bird in the World (Lyons Press; $26.95), by noted author and naturalist Stephen J. Bodio, offers an engrossing study of the world’s eagle populations past and present and their interaction with humans. The book details what has become a long, involved love-hate relationship between humans and eagles, and Bodio acts as tour guide through this fascinating gallery and archive of natural history. He sheds light on an array of points of historical contact between eagles and humans (of particular interest are the Kazakh falconers, who train them to bring down wolves), on through the present, and rising threats to a number of eagle species throughout the world due to habitat loss, poaching and increased use of pesticides.

In his prologue, Bodio’s obvious passion for his subject soars from the page: “I am human, and wish I could fly with eagles and, liberated to the air, hunt with them like a human mate — blowing down the wind like a thought, a shadow on furled wings, falling from the sky like a sentient thunderbolt to kill with my own suddenly powerful hands. … Our dreaming species exists within a larger context that predates us; it is one that needs us less than we need it.”

This handsome hardcover, with more than 100 stunning, full-color images, feels comprehensive in scope. Couple that with Bodio’s clever writing style (he refers to the eagle as a “carnivorous Buddhist”), which manages to be both entertaining and educational, and you have yourself all and more of what the subtitle promises: a human history of the most fascinating bird in the world.

Anything Worth Doing

Anything Worth Doing (Sundog Books; $15), by Jo Deurbrouck, won the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award with good reason — it has everything a compelling story should have: passion, friendship, high-octane thrills and the dogged pursuit of something beyond the dictates of reason and sense. And did I mention that it’s true? At times a white-knuckle ride soaked in Salmon River spray, and at others a thoughtful rumination on the high costs of blindly following one’s own course in life, the exploits of the book’s protagonists, two larger-than-life Idaho whitewater raft guides who are guided by a personal belief that “anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” inspire equal parts awe and headshakes.

The men are so infatuated with the Salmon River, the West’s last true wild flowage, that they set out to explore it, to enjoy it, to journey it in every way conceivable, including a 900-mile trip tracing it from its source to the Pacific. In the process, they expend little effort in ensuring their own security. This blind devotion to the pursuit of freedom forms the heart of the book, inviting in an inevitable wallop of tragedy. To say more would risk ruining Deurbrouck’s award-winning work. In a poetic, comfortable and knowledgeable tone, the author, a veteran wilderness raft guide herself and one fine writer, knows of what she writes.

It will surprise me if Anything Worth Doing doesn’t come to be regarded as a classic of rafting, of outdoor adventure writing, and more importantly, of the risks and rewards gained and lost in the pursuit of freedom, to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

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