Haunting, flawed story of pioneer relationships

August 14, 2005|By Clare McHugh | Clare McHugh,Special to the Sun

NOVEL

A SUDDEN COUNTRY

By Karen Fisher. Random House. 360 pages.

The special challenge of writing a novel set in the past is to capture not only the outward trappings of the characters -- the way they dress, speak and behave -- but also their inner lives -- their feelings and their motivations. After all, people throughout history have experienced jealousy, anger, ambition and love, but their emotional lives are shaped by the time and place in which they find themselves.

A Sudden Country, a new book by Karen Fisher, is many wonderful things: a stirring appreciation of the Western landscape, a dramatic account of a wagon-train trip from Iowa to Oregon in 1847, and a sensitive exploration of American Indians and whites living side-by-side in that pioneer period. But because Fisher's depiction of the two main characters rings false, the novel is ultimately not successful.

The book tells the story of James MacLaren, a trader for the Hudson Bay Company, and Lucy Mitchell, a married woman undertaking the dangerous trek West with her family. The two would never have met but for the tragedy that opens the book, the death of all three of MacLaren's children from smallpox. His wife, a Nez Perce Indian, has deserted him when she realizes that he has brought the infection into their home, and it is his search for her and the man she has supposedly taken up with that causes him to join the wagon train heading for Oregon.

Lucy Mitchell has her own burdens -- most notably her resentment at being forced to move by her rigid and controlling second husband. Still mourning the death of her first love, and bewailing the general fate of women of her era, Lucy is unappealing from the start, although she is the book's heroine. By today's standards, Lucy might have reason to feel ill used, but in the hardscrabble world in which she's living, her attitude comes across as just petulant. When this wife and mother embarks on an affair with MacLaren, in between grueling days on the trail and caring for four children, the wheels fall off the plot. The relationship seems so unlikely in context, and the sentiments that the lovers whisper to each other owe so much to the psychologically self-aware ethos of our own day that this reader, at least, started rolling her eyes.

The other relationship developed in A Sudden Country is the one between American Indians and the whites they encounter. Here Fisher, a first-time novelist, seems on firmer ground, describing with some delicacy how trust builds and then is shattered, both on an individual level and among larger groups during the 1840s as settlers flood into the Northwest. The good intentions of white missionaries and their subsequent suffering at the hands of the Indians they try to help makes for poignant reading. And plenty of space is devoted to the natives' anger, fear and disappointment. But Fisher smudges her nuanced portrayal of cultural clash when she has MacLaren become convinced he can bridge the divide. When he sets out to preach peace and understanding, once again the attitudes of a modern mind suddenly emerge in a 19th-century character, and the story suffers.

Yet, there are passages of A Sudden Country that are beautiful and haunting. The opening chapters, and their descriptions of loss, both of family and of place, linger in one's memory. Indeed, the theme of the novel is not the triumph of exploration and progress, but the high cost paid by people involved in the opening of the West. That perspective gives this flawed book both resonance and grace.

Clare McHugh is an editor at Time Inc.

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