by Judith Kirscht
I am not a Westerner, by birth, so some would say it’s presumptuous to place my stories there. But the West shapes the imagination even for those raised East of the Mississippi. Chicago kids like me dream of the open skies of the Great Plains, the mountains beyond it and the sea—a fairytale land of space and freedom. My husband-to-be was from Oregon, and my first experience with the West was a train trip across the country to visit him, my first adventure, being snowbound (in that same train) in the Blue Mountains. Far from being put off, however, I loved the mountains, the space, the air.
When I began to write, some twenty-five years later, my writing coach said, “You write from place. It shapes your characters and your stories.” Now, some forty years of writing later, he has proved right. My first published novel, Nowhere Else To Go, is set in a fictional Midwest college town, based on Ann Arbor, Michigan where I raised my family. The story—a college town caught up in the turmoil of the Sixties—is clearly born of place and time. The second, The Inheritors takes place in Chicago, where I grew up, and at its core are the sensibilities of those who live in cultural, racial, mix of cities created by the great migrations of the Twentieth Century.
By the time I actually moved west to California, my sensitivity to place was well formed. I had spent six years in Berkeley, so I already had a sense of California as the home of all those who escaped seeking a golden life—all of those like me. They were as rootless as the characters of my first two books were rooted. Santa Barbara was similar in that regard, but it was there that the power of nature took dominance. The beauty of that coast is legendary, and for the fifteen years I taught at the university there, I lived beside some forty acres of open meadow leading to cliffs above a mile of wild beach and the sea. I swore I would walk that meadow every day—and I did. And so Home Fires, my third novel takes place there and carries that sense of the almost unreal beauty of that place and the woman who breathes it in.
All of these places reinforced my sense of the power of place to shape story and character, but I think few are as aware of the power of nature as the Northwesterners, where the expanse of water and mountain dwarf all else. I think I was drawn to Washington, some ten years ago, because the combination of water and forest remind me of northern Michigan, Wisconsin,
and Minnesota—vacation country of the Great Lakes states. And here in the Skagit Valley I’ve found people rooted in a way the Californians of my experience weren’t. They are fishermen, hunters, farmers, wedded to the land and sea. And so the protagonists of Hawkins Lane, Ned Hawkins and Erica Romano, are brought together by their love of the mountains. They carry that love of the space and solitude of the wilderness, the escape, the self-reliance that has shaped the national imagination.But in Hawkins Lane the power of mountain and forest becomes a character—a dominant, powerful force to be contended with before all else.
Here are a few snippets.
“As March neared its end, the stream behind the Romero house rushed with melting snow, the crowds of skiers and snowshoers on the streets of McKenzie Crossing began to thin, and eagles passed over the house on their way to the river. Erica recounted every change in her journal, every new bare patch of lawn, every bird, and every change pushed her harder …”
A sheen of white glimmered ahead. A moment later they were staring without breath at the vast expanse of snow where the trail had been. He reached for Bonnie’s hand but it was gripping the pommel of her saddle. … tears running down her cheeks.
‘He’s in there, isn’t he? Archie.’”
“Over and over, he radioed her. Her line was open, but she didn’t answer. He was overwhelmed by the enormity of the woods, of the lunacy of their illusion that this mountain was their friend. The night belonged to the mountains, the wind, and the rain.”
And finally, the image of a frightened child looking down a tree-roofed lane that gave birth to the story became this ending.
“ he stood looking down its tree-roofed length. It was stripped and naked, but nature would re-clothe it. In a month, the alders and evergreens would take up everything that had happened and fold it into their branches.”