Sunday, July 10, 2016

Book Review: Lime Creek

In recent years, the fiction I have gravitated to most is written for middle grade youth. When I venture into the "grown-up" aisles at the library, I tend to move first toward genre fiction, most especially mysteries. It's rare that I pick up general adult fiction or even "literary fiction." The latter can be creative, but it often bothers me because of a lack of strong or sensible narrative. (What can I say....I like stories that make sense.)

So for me to pick up a book like Joe Henry's Lime Creek is a surprising and rare event. I'm not sure why I did. It was sitting in a pile of books the librarians place on a central table, trying to tantalize you with their recommended fare. It's a small book with a rather bleak looking landscape on the cover and one small word, all in lower case letters, which reads "fiction." There's also a quote on the front cover from Larry McMurtry, whose name I vaguely recognized as a writer of westerns. The quote is simply "A wonderful book."

For whatever reason -- perhaps a small sense of daring that comes with having made it this far in my cancer healing journey -- I picked it up. I read the inside flap, which said more things about how wonderful the writing was and also some things about the story that turned out to only be sort of true, but flaps aren't always the best barometer for judging books.

More a series of interconnected stories than a novel, the book took me a couple of weeks to read even though it was only 142 pages long. It's divided into two sections. I found myself winging through section one, rather amazed at the music of Henry's prose, and then trudging through the cold tundra of section two, where there were still some amazing moments of music but where the prose became so complex I kept getting lost. I'm not saying there was no complexity in the first section -- the entire book reads more like a long prose poem than anything else -- but that the sentences and paragraphs were a little more spare and traditional. The sentences in the second half become so convoluted that at times I felt like I was inside a maze, trying to wander my way out to the next sentence.

I am thinking this was intentional. The first half of the book deals mostly with characters named Spencer and Elizabeth. Spencer narrates the four chapters in this half, all told in first person. It's difficult to tell how much time passes, but we know he meets Elizabeth and they marry, and that ultimately they have three sons. One of the sons, Luke, becomes the main character of the second half, which is told sometimes in first, sometimes in third person. Spencer comes into these stories some, and Luke talks about both his father and his mother Elizabeth (who we come to know passed away in his childhood).

The author is fond of using sentence fragments, beginning sentences with "and," and using no punctuation in presenting dialogue, all of which lends a rather dreamy, stream of consciousness feel to the proceedings. It's very difficult to track time in the later chapters but we see Luke and his brother Whitney as young children, as high schoolers, and finally as adults, with Luke really being the heart of the second generation. Despite Spencer's painful memories of war, the older generation seems more stable than the younger generation, or perhaps it's that we're following along with some of Luke's growing up passages. I think we get lost in the prose because Luke sometimes feels lost (and sometimes he is literally lost, as in the book's final scene when he goes hunting for his runaway horse in a blizzard).

Horses and snow are a big part of the book, which is set in the cold, rugged wilderness of Wyoming. Some of the most musical bits of prose  are those that describe the strong horses and the bitter cold.  Sentences like: "The other and younger team of Buck and Buddy stood dreaming in their stalls as the snow continued all through the day and into the night again like a great shaggy wall of dark cold feathers patiently sifting down and filling all the high country at the foot of what someone a long time ago had renamed the Neversummer Mountains."

I need to quote one favorite paragraph in full. It comes in the middle of the chapter called "Sleep" in which we see Luke and Whitney on a Christmas evening with their parents, visiting the Bowman farm where the local festivities take place each year.

"You could hear Towbowman's guitar from inside the barn when you were still a little ways off, Bradley Bowman's uncle Tobin who everyone called Towbowman as if his two names first and last were really one name put together. The sound of the guitar in the delicate clarity of the newborn night made everybody quiet as we approached, the loveliness of it so achingly simple and pure from out of the whelming darkness like an earth-bred accompaniment to a universe cut from glass. With the crunching snow and that simple human refrain on this side of the cold, and the stars so familiar and yet so distant on the other side."  

A beautiful passage, and one that gives you a sense of the music of this book.

Am I glad I picked up Lime Creek? I think so. Despite having a difficult time following some of the later chapters, and despite preferring more straightforward narratives, I felt I followed enough and picked up some beautiful, moving glimpses of a family over two generations. The connections were sometimes tenuous, but they were there, almost as though the characters themselves had not yet fully grasped the depth of connections between the generations. Henry gives you just enough about these people to make you want to know more.

I will credit my reading of this book and my re-entrance into the world of James Herriot (more on that in another post) with getting me writing fiction again, after a very long hiatus.

I also fell in love with the second chapter, "Family," which stands out beautifully and works as a story in its own right that is just about perfect in its pitch. It describes the birth of a foal, a foal who grows up to become Elizabeth's mare. It's so beautifully rendered that I am thinking of photocopying that one chapter and keeping it so I can re-read it, and also because I think it could be a wonderful resource for a creative writing class, a great example of detailed, poetic writing that evokes tremendous feeling.

There is also a powerful scene near the end of the book, in the chapter "Passages," that describes the death of the mare, years later. The mare has become Luke's horse (in the absence of Elizabeth) and the same vet who attended the foal at birth attends the old horse in her death. You intuitively understand that Luke's love for the horse and the depth of his grief at her passing is inextricably bound up in his love for and grief over his late mother.

For me, those two scenes became the bookends that hold the story together better than anything else. If you read nothing else, you could read those as companion scenes, unmoored from the rest of the book, and come away moved.

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