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Visit any national park in the American West these days and you're likely to hear a cacophony of Old World tongues. For centuries, Europeans have flocked to our natural cathedrals to revel, retreat and just plain gawk.
Ditto for English author Nicholas Evans, who has used his beloved Rocky Mountain region to far more impressive end: financial security.
Evans struck gold on his very first pass at novel-writing with 1995's The Horse Whisperer, a mythic tale of man and beast that quickly was given the big-screen treatment by the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford.
Where do you go from there? For Evans, it was back to the same vein. His subsequent novels both used the West as physical and emotional backdrops. The Loop (1998) focused on the plight of wolves, and The Smoke Jumpers (2001) dived into the world of forest-fire fighters.
Now he's back with The Divide. Its opening brings us to Montana, with its wild creatures and license plate boasting Big Sky. But curiously, the author seems to have tired of anchoring his tidy soap operas to a specific setting; his characters bounce from New York to California to New Mexico. In so doing we lose our sense of place, and maybe that's for the best.
The Divide conjures up the Continental Divide, the spine of the Rocky Mountain West, but really references the fractured lives of Ben and Sarah Cooper, who, along with kids Abigail and Josh, are all wealthy, pretty and not so happy.
When Abigail's love of the land -- fostered during family trips to The Divide, a ranch in Montana -- turns radical, tragedy quickly overwhelms the story.
How Abigail dies becomes the engine of this literary train. But the scenery outside the window is just as fascinating and topical: glimpses of students protesting the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, scenes of an oil company digging into pristine nature, and stark views of an American divorce.
In many ways, The Divide owes more to Ingmar Bergman's classic film Scenes from a Marriage than it does any work by Louis L'Amour or Cormac McCarthy.
Those two writers never let you forget you're rambling through the land of America's Manifest Destiny. But while Evans reveres his backdrop, he ultimately is more interested in getting the reader to go inward than outside. In Evans' hands, that's a journey worth taking.
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