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I was 50 pages into Karen Fisher's remarkable debut novel, A Sudden Country, before I began to understand the story that was unfolding.
But the words and images swept me along. Not since Cormac McCarthy's 1992 modern-day Western, All the Pretty Horses, has a novel's opening been as mystifying and mesmerizing.
Like McCarthy, Fisher has written a work of art, true to its terrain.
It's a love story set during the Oregon migration of 1847, the first true year of "Oregon fever."
One of Fisher's ancestors was 11 that year when her family headed west. Building on a brief, matter-of-fact chronicle her ancestor wrote about their perilous journey ("went no water all day or night and there our nice mare perished"), Fisher has created a tragic and wondrous world.
The novel deals with the death of children, the fevered dreams of their ambitious parents and the triumph and cost of civilization. And it's about the work of women, about what it means to be a true wife and mother.
The story is told alternately through the eyes of Lucy Mitchell and James MacLaren, who at first seem to have nothing in common.
She's a resentful mother of four, a widow whose second husband uproots the family from Iowa in pursuit of dreams she doesn't share. Crossing the country with a baby on her hip, she fears, "This child was too great a gift and would be taken."
He's a sorrowful former Hudson Bay Company trapper who's read Shakespeare. He has lost his Nez Perce wife to another man and his three children to the smallpox he brought home.
"He used to say: I never trust a man who will forgive himself. Would you?" Lucy and James are morally questioning sinners.
She thinks, "How little cure there was for tragedy." He asks himself, "Could a man still carry all the weight of what had gone before, of what had been and what would be, and yet step forward, innocent?" Fisher's writing is simple yet eloquent, earthy but almost biblical.
She says a lot in few words. She ends a scene of lovemaking this way: "They took to the floor. They shook down dust from the shingles."
Her sentences carry a wallop: "How young we all begin, it seemed. How brave and full of certainty. How terrible it would be to know: not only what we must become, but who we really are." And later: "But if it was the promised land, it was not because of trees and climate, but because, just getting here, they'd found something new inside themselves."
Fisher has worked as a wrangler, farmer and carpenter. Her craft shows in her words and attention to details. But this is not a novel for impatient readers, driven by page-turning plots.
It's best read slowly, at the pace of the great trek west. As Fisher's characters reach the Platte River, then Independence Rock and Snake River, I kept turning to the map in front, amazed at how far they'd come, how far they had to go.
It's a tough and tender read. If that's a contradiction, so be it. The West is full of them.
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