this book totally roofied me.
i don’t know how else to account for the fact that every single time i had to put it down to do the other things that life requires of me, i would completely lose the thread of the story, and i would have to go back and reread a few pages just to remember even the very basics of the plot. which is unusual, for me. and my lukewarm response to the book overall was completely unexpected. on the surface, this is totally my kind of book: it’s canada, it’s woodsy, there’s a crime, there’s a stoic central character for whom communication is difficult—these are all my kinds of themes. but for some reason, this story just rolled off of me without leaving any impression. again—i suspect book-roofies. it is by no means poorly written—her descriptions of nature are phenomenal, but the woods end up feeling more alive and more memorable than any of the characters or the story itself.
this is a fractured family novel (another thing i usually dig): elka, (existing only in backstory and memory) a tragic-figure mother who abandoned her family and later died alone in a snowbank, tom—the frequently absent father of few words, erin; the (barely-featured) sweet but tough teenage daughter who has basically had to raise herself, and curtis—a young man who is drifting through life, rudderless. in the opening pages, curtis is involved in a drunk driving accident—where he hits a young girl with his car driving home from a party late at night. addled and terrified, he flees the scene without even checking to see if the girl is still alive. he retreats into a haze of guilt and marijuana and at one point he tries to tell tom what happened, but his vague evasive confession is misunderstood by tom. which pretty much sums up their relationship—bound by blood and unspoken love, but so awkward with each other. the lives of a father and son occasionally intersecting or overlapping, but there’s little connection.
tom makes his living as a tree planter. he runs a company that seeds the forest all over western canada, and is looking forward to retiring so he can live in the woods full-time, living off the land. he spends much of the year away from home working, and has a closer relationship with his workers than with his own children. tom is a man of few words, but who harbors deep unexpressed feelings—he loves his children but is uncomfortable showing this love, and so he comes across as distant and unfeeling.
a perfect example of this is the way tom fields curtis’ questions after he has had to end the suffering of rocky, his fourteen-year-old dog and companion.
“But how are you, Dad? That must have been pretty bad, doing it yourself.”
One of the pieces of meat was stuck to the grill and Tom worked at it with a pair of tongs. He shrugged. The shot had been clean. “Had to be done.”
“You could have taken him to the vet.”
Tom pointed toward the Suburban with his tongs. “How long has the Suburban been making that noise?”
tom is methodical, patient, uncomfortable in civilization but completely at ease in the woods. he is extremely skilled at fixing anything mechanical, or rescuing wounded animals, but cannot fix his broken family. which symbolism is a little too on the nose for me. having said that, one of the best scenes is the one where tom is repairing a pipe in the basement where curtis is living while curtis is trying to tell him about the hit and run, and tom’s later musing, when he realizes what he missed that day:
Maybe he should have said more to the boy, opened him up like some piece of machinery and taken the wires out. Switched a cable from one power source to another, eliminated all the possibilities until he found the fault, and maybe then he would have figured him out. But he had done the thing that came most naturally to him—played down whatever it was Curtis was upset about because that’s how he, Tom, would have wanted to be treated. Sometimes it was hard to remember that other people didn’t go by the rules you set for yourself.
which is a beautiful moment, but then the same epiphany pops up again about fifty pages later, just in case you missed it the first time, which weakened it somewhat for me.
Tom went over that last conversation he’d had with Curtis. Curt had been trying to talk to him, and all he could remember now was how hard it had been to get at that valve, how easy it had been to avoid whatever it was Curt was upset about.
but tom is my kind of character; a practical, competent man who thrives in isolation. a man who does what needs to be done in an outwardly dispassionate way. but his interior life is rich, and during woodsy ruminations, we learn about his family’s past and we get a better sense of who tom really is. elka ran out on the family when erin was only a few months old, and tom was forced to become the sole caregiver to their two children. he taught them how to shoot and other necessary tasks, but he was never able to make himself vulnerable enough to show his deep love for them. he kept them safe and he provided for them, but he was unable to navigate his own emotional landscape.
this is this is not a crime novel. a crime occurs, but the story is not shaped like crime fiction in any way. after the opening scene’s hit-and-run, the story spends a great deal of time with tom in the wilderness, with his adopted family of workers and his business concerns and his lover and his memories. this is a quiet family story that is also a quiet nature story. the beauty of the forests and the lakes, the peace of the land inhabited only by moose and bears, the contemplative camping scenes—leipciger is excellent at these details. the nature writing is as lush as her characters are distant and clinical.
i loved the nature writing, i loved tom’s character, and i loved all the scenes he shares with elka’s mother bobbie—a firecracker of a character who lives even further off the grid than tom. there’s a lot of good writing in this book, but the story never grabbed me by the throat. which, in a reading experience is a good thing, as opposed to that happening on the street.
i am putting this author’s name in my mental “authors to watch” list, because i think she is definitely a skilled writer, even though this book wasn’t “my” book.