I’ve decided to start periodically putting up book reviews I’ve been writing for our Juniata Valley Audubon Society’s The Gnatcatcher in the belief that reading books with a nature theme is important for those of us who love the natural world. Here is the one from the November/December 2015 issue:
Recently I’ve read two novels steeped in their natural surroundings. Above the Waterfall by poet and novelist Ron Rash takes place in western North Carolina. The chapters are related by two alternating voices.
Becky is a state park ranger, psychologically damaged by a childhood trauma only helped by a summer she spent nearby with her grandparents. To her, life in the Appalachians as an adult is a return to the safety she felt then, and hers is the poetic voice—“the hummingbird nest at the meadow edge—a strawy thimble, the hummingbird’s wings—stained glass alive in sudden sunlight shimmer, wildflowers sway in their floral abundance, the grasshopper’s rasping papyrus wings…”
Les is the fifty-year-old, soon-to-be-retired county sheriff who is tired, after 30 years, and wants to return to a simpler life in a dream cabin he has designed after making what he thinks were major mistakes in his life.
Both Becky and Les are faced with an environmental mystery. Who poisoned the local trout stream? Neither think the obvious suspect poured kerosene into a stream he loves. How this mystery is solved provides the plot, but I will remember Becky’s poetic voice long after I forget the story line of this satisfying novel.
Martin Marten by poet, essayist, and novelist Brian Doyle takes place in the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest. Dave is an honorable, young teenager, Martin Marten is a wild creature, facing adversaries, both wild and human, but who is fascinated by Dave.
How both learn and grow and the quirky adults they associate with, including a sympathetic portrait of a trapper, is the major theme of this book. There is a touch of magical realism that appeals to all of us who wish for a similar relationship with a wild creature.
Unfortunately, martens were extirpated from Pennsylvania around 1900 by trapping and the elimination of old growth coniferous and mixed deciduous/coniferous forests, which are their preferred habitats. Smaller than a fisher and larger than a mink, this sleek, handsome member of the Weasel Family only lives in the East in New England, the Adirondacks, northern Michigan and northern Wisconsin now.
But the inquisitive, curious nature of martens is well-known and Brian Doyle’s portrayal of Martin is spot on. We can only regret the extirpation of such a fascinating creature from our state after reading this wonderful book.