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On winter reading and the literature of place

Locations: Opinion Published

Even though many people use fiction as a sort of escape, it’s the familiar elements that connect us to the story.

It’s one of the reasons folks have pushed so hard for more stories featuring people of different genders, cultures, classes and perspectives. Even so, it seems like works set in small, Western towns are few and far between — or else caricatured by someone who’s never visited such.

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Back in June, I reached out authors who, I felt, had captured something of my own experience. I received a short reply and no follow-up from Peter Heller, whose postapocalyptic best seller “Dog Stars” briefly mentions Carbondale and next novel “The Painter” features the North Fork Valley. I heard nothing from Brandon Sanderson, whose fantasy novels show a surprising amount of influence from his home in Utah. I was too discouraged to try to reach James Galvin, although I hand “The Meadow” to anyone who doesn’t seem to understand my need for solitude, much less titans like Terry Tempest Williams or Cormac McCarthy.

The one person who did respond was Peter Grandbois.

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It probably helped that we’re distant relations, which is why I picked up his books in the first place. This isn’t a review (I very much want to steer folks toward the authors sharing their works at the library this weekend), but it’s worth noting that my mother, who lacks the blood relation, read the whole of “Nahoonkara” in a single sitting. It’s certainly not light summer reading, which is why you’re hearing about it now. In an ideal world, you’d enjoy it by the fireplace as snow piles up outside and in the pages.

“I actually think it’s the writer’s job to make the familiar seem new again, to make the reader see things they thought they knew and understood as if for the first time,” Grandbois told me. “I wanted the reader to see the mountains of Colorado as a child might see them, as Zebulon Pike might have experienced them when he first came across the plains.”

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The idea, he explained, came after a visit to the Frisco Historical Society. He imagined his mother’s three uncles as the Swedish Brothers who had founded the town.

“Place informs who we are as human beings,” he noted. “I don’t think we can separate ourselves from our environment.”

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So when you encounter a familiar landscape written by folks who aren’t intimately acquainted with it, you can feel the difference.

“I think we’re waking up to the fact that there is a huge part of this country that isn’t represented, that nobody is talking about,” Grandbois observed. “At Denison University where I teach, we’ve just established a narrative journalism concentration whose primary goal is to tell the stories of people from this nation’s rural areas. So things are changing.”

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That’s important not only for the folks who haven’t been represented, but by those who have missed that exposure.

“I also think part of why we read is to have empathy with others, to experience different points of view,” Grandbois added. “That’s something that’s in short supply nowadays. Good books can do that. They open our world.”

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“Nahoonkara” and Grandbois’ other works also integrate a bit of magical realism — a sort of embracing of the unlikely bordering on fantastical that I mostly associate with works in Spanish. According to Grandbois, however, it’s pretty common almost everywhere but the U.S. and England. Our corner of the world, though, seems the perfect candidate for the trope even aside from our Spanish history.

“I believe the West is a land of magic,” Grandbois said. “Every time I take a walk in the Colorado mountains I feel that magic and mystery in the air, in the rivers and trees.”

He’s finding it harder and harder to lose himself in nature, though.

“Every time I return everything seems so much more congested and busy… It’s becoming harder and harder to slip away into the mountains and not run into lots of other people,” he wrote. “I think understanding our past goes deeper than that. It’s more than knowing facts and dates. It’s knowing what it was like to live in a time before cell phones or the Internet or Google Maps. It’s about learning how living without those things developed other parts of your brain, even your spirit. I don’t want to downplay the benefits of technology and progress. There are many. But we should always remember those benefits come with a cost.”

In the preservation of the past, connection to the present and creation of the future, it probably wouldn’t hurt to pick up a book.

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