A Sudden Country

I’ve been reading “A Sudden Country” by Karen Fisher. Based on a spare journal by one of the author’s ancestors, it takes place during the 1847 Oregon migration. One of the main characters is Lucy Mitchell, a re-married widow, who is reluctantly following her second husband across the country, leaving the civility in which she was comfortable. The other main character is James McLaren, a Scottish Hudson’s Bay trapper, who has lost his Nez Perce wife to another trapper and his children to smallpox and who eventually becomes a member of the Mitchell party.

It is a gorgeous book, a very sad book. It moves with the slow rhythm of grief and the measured pace of travelling across the plains in wagons drawn by oxen. The author paints with language – indelible portraits of people, animals, feelings and landscapes, densely detailed. Each sentence is a gem of poetry, dense with imagery and emotion, making the story come alive in your mind. In the words of a friend of mine, it makes you realize you’re not worthy of writing a personal cheque.

It is a book so dense, so rich, it’s best read in smaller bites - 1 or 2 chapters at a time. And bites it is – it is what my mother calls “a book you can chew”. It makes you still inside, wanting to settle in and disappear into it. I can imagine that it may be better listened to than read – that way, you can let the language wash over you. The narrator is wonderful – the tone of her voice conveys the emotions of the characters and the landscape. Although her Scottish burr is wobbly at times, you don’t really mind – she manages to draw you so far into the story that you don’t really notice how she is reading, only that the words and the voice become one.

Given all of this, I don’t know why my interest in the book came to a screeching halt a little over half way through. Maybe it’s how rich it is. You know how after several days of rich food during the holidays, all you want is salad, fruit, steamed fish and really healthy cereal? It might be that. The language is so intense, the story so emotionally demanding, that you can only take so much and then you need something much more sparse before you dive back in.

Where’s Dick Francis when you need him?