With her acclaimed memoir In the Wilderness Kim Barnes brought us to the great forests of Idaho, where geography and isolation shape love and family. Now, in her luminous new novel, she returns to this territory, offering a powerful tale of hope and idealism, faith and madness.
It is 1960 when Thomas Deracotte and his pregnant wife, Helen, abandon a guaranteed future in upper-crust Connecticut and take off for a utopian adventure in the Idaho wilderness. They buy a farm sight unseen and find the buildings collapsed, the fields in ruins. But they have a tent, a river full of fish, and acres overgrown with edible berries and dandelion greens. Helen learns to make coffee over a fire as they set about rebuilding the house. Though Thomas discovers he can't wield a hammer or an ax, there is a local boy, Manny--a sweet soul of eighteen without a family of his own--who agrees to manage the fields in exchange for room and board. Their optimism and desire carry them through the early days.
But the sudden, frightening birth of Thomas and Helen's daughter, Elise, changes something deep inside their marriage. And then, in the aftermath of a tragic accident to which only Manny bears witness, suspicion, anger, and regret come to haunt this shattered family. It is a legacy Elise will inherit and struggle with, until she ultimately finds a hope of her own.
In this extraordinary novel, Kim Barnes reminds us of what it means to be young and in love, to what lengths people will go to escape loneliness, and the redemption found in family.
A newly married couple abandon the comfort of upper-class Connecticut and stake their claim in 1960s Fife, Idaho, in Pulitzer-finalist Barnes's exquisite novel. Thomas and Helen Deracotte--he a young, poor doctor, she a stifled, monied rebel--buy an isolated farm sight unseen and arrive to find it a shambles. Upon arriving in the inhospitable wilderness, Thomas realizes that he would rather live off the land for their daily sustenance than open his own medical practice, and he hires Manny, a handsome teenage vagabond, to help around the farm. When Helen has baby girl Elise, Manny ingratiates himself further with the Deracottes and becomes a loving caretaker. But when the new mother begins to feel suffocated and overwhelmed, she returns to her rebellious ways and finds herself powerfully attracted to Manny. Their relationship has dire consequences for all involved--particularly for Helen and Elise, but nobody gets off easy. Barnes's descriptions of the rugged landscape are vivid, and the characters' sadness and desires are revealed with wrenching detail. (Oct.)
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September 29, 2008
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Excerpt from A Country Called Home by Kim Barnes
The druggist waited, whistling, looking out the window, nodding to each person who passed along the Main Street of Fife. It was early, the bank not yet open. The warming September wind wafted through the door seams. On the north hill, he could see the sun just hitting the flat metal roof of the Clearwater Mental Hospital and, across the shared parking lot, the high school. Dr. K often joked that the children of Fife could look out their windows and see their future before them.
"How much?" Manny asked again. The boy was tall enough to meet the older man eye to eye, but he kept his gaze on the faded counter as though some miracle might transpire there.
"Same as last time."
The cola sat between them, dripping condensation. Manny laid out three pennies, pretended to search for more.
"Don't got it, do you?" The druggist was not an unfriendly man but brusque and burly, built more like a butcher than a purveyor of medicine. Dr. K, the locals called him, his full name, Kalinosky, too much to mess with. His role in the town went beyond the filling of prescriptions and the dispensing of antiseptics: he diagnosed strep throat, checked children for lice, scoured the wounds caused by pitched rocks, chain saw slips, bicycle wrecks.
"No, sir." Manny freed his hands, let them drop to his sides. He peered at his shoes, the seams stretched and frayed.
Dr. K sighed, shook his head, pointed toward the door. "Broom's just outside. Make yourself useful for an hour."
Like others in Fife, Dr. K knew the details of Manny's life: his parents' move from California to the isolated Idaho land they believed a more honest place; the strange little canvas hut that inspired the town's curiosity and contempt. His father's insistence on learning the dying art of horse-logging from an old man who stank of sweat and juniper berries. Manny's birth just a few miles up Itsy Creek, and the death of his mother twelve years later when his little sister, born already dead, was followed by the blood they could not stop flowing. The father, once admired for his native ingenuity and his matched team of Percheron geldings, had headed south to find work and never came back. The good women of Fife had proceeded with a kind of communal adoption, passing the responsibility for Manny's care from one to the other, each week a different mother, father, cast of siblings, and then the cycle repeating. Dr. K remembered the morning he'd opened the drugstore to find Mrs. Keasling wringing her hands, repeating again and again that der boy, der boy was missing. Dr. K had found Manny where he thought he would, asleep in the fair barn, his father's auctioned draft horses snuffling his hair, placing their great hooves gently beside him.
Manny stepped outside with the broom, scattering the cats that had gathered for their morning meal. Too many toms, Dr. K thought. Too many litters, but he couldn't turn away a single one of them. He watched as Manny worked the windows clean of cobwebs, pleased with the care he took with the corners. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, he'd grown into a fine young man: tall and strong-shouldered, more handsome than he needed to be. Thick dark hair, dark eyes, skin like an Italian, Dr. K thought. He looked like he might be broody, but wasn't. When Manny ran the broom a final time along each crack of the sidewalk and knocked the bristles clean before stepping back into the store, Dr. K opened the cash register and pulled out a dollar bill.
"Here. Buy yourself some real food." Dr. K slipped the pencil behind his ear, wiped a hand the length of his face. "Listen. You need to get out there and do something. Ray Coon's logging outfit might need a swamper. Or what about the railroad? Didn't I hear that they were hiring?"
Manny shrugged. "Guess I'm okay."
"Okay? What's that mean? There's just no reason for you to be living like a hobo. It's one thing when you're a boy to be spending your days piddling around at the river, but you're about past that now. Pretty soon, if you're not doing nothing, you'll be good for nothing."
Manny nodded, agreeable as always. "You got more work you'd like me to do?"
Dr. K sat down on the high stool he kept for resting his feet. "Another few months, I might use you for delivery. Bad weather sets in, business picks up. Which reminds me--how many jars of VapoRub you see on the shelf?"
Manny counted three, one large, two small. The druggist grunted, made a note on a piece of paper. "Better order more. Those Carter kids eat that stuff. Mother thinks it does them more good from the inside."
Dr. K was tallying his laxative inventory when a man stepped in. Dress shirt and shoes, pants still holding a crease. Sharp nose and chin. Hair just past a good cut. Outside, a faded red Volkswagen sat at the curb, a young woman in the passenger seat, holding her hair away from her neck, fanning herself with a map.