Karen Fisher has written the the kind of debut novel that makes you wonder how many other brilliant writers are out there being farmers, wranglers, teachers, carpenters or parents. Fisher is all of those things and, luckily for us, has written about them -- well enough to get published to rave reviews. A letter written by an ancestor sparked Fisher to write this tale of a family crossing the American West from Missouri to Oregon in 1847. The result, A Sudden Country, is beautiful, the setting is authentic, and the characters are inspirational.
Fisher's language is poetic -- spare and graceful, the dialogue serving characters only when their rich internal worlds must meet in an exchange, and then the spoken language carries only the essence of evolving relationships. The pages are full of unusual words describing the tools and clothing of pioneers. This renders the book illuminating on the subject of survival in the wilderness 160 years ago without presenting the kind of uphill climb of decoding vocabulary you encountered in Cold Mountain. Any myths about cowboys and Indians are blown away by the honesty in this book. Measles, smallpox, insects, hunger, death, and daily drudgery are real here, as characters trek across the newly expanded American frontier in search of land or pure adventure.
Fisher's novel is structurally flawless. Two characters, who have both lost a spouse, journey toward what couldn't be called a "love affair," but rather something that takes on the character of an essential union in desperate circumstances. It builds momentum, peaks, and crumbles in perfect synchrony with the caravan's trip itself. Lucy, a widow newly remarried to Israel Mitchell, commits adultery with James MacLaren, who has lost three children and a Native American wife. What is refreshing about these characters' losses, mistakes and pleasures is that they're always subject to scrutiny and care -- with the aid of religion, superstition, or just plain humor and persistence. As a result you read A Sudden Country and think how good it is to be around characters that truly care about their souls, wonder about the why of things, and march on in spite of grave danger.
Karen Fisher is generous with her knowledge of both the American West and human passion. Let's hope she has more to say after this excellent debut.