Three Overlooked Gems

Critic John Douglas Marshall shares three books, one memoir and two novels, that he thinks have been unfairly overlooked and are worthy of readers discovering.

Reading’s power to transport remains one of its greatest gifts. During the cold winter months, an enthralling book can be just the thing to move readers and perform the feat of taking us to another place or time. Three favorite books from recent years possess that magic in copious amounts. Their conclusions arrive too soon after more than 300 pages, yet resonate long after the final paragraph. These three worthy titles deserve wider audiences, since they are still qualify as lesser-known literary discoveries for readers, their friends, and book clubs.

A strong sense of place anchors these books, so it may not be surprising that their authors live in the Pacific Northwest, a proud region that retains the distinct aura of final frontier for both the United States and Canada. Brian Brett lives on Salt Spring Island, one of the Canadian Gulf Islands across the Strait of Georgia southwest of Vancouver, B.C. Brett’s recent memoir, Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, provides an affectionate, profane, and poetic account of his 18-year wrangle with animals, vegetables, fruits, wildlife, and weather in a nature-blessed setting of neighborly community. Karen Fisher lives on Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound outside Seattle. Fisher’s 2005 novel, A Sudden Country, is a vibrant, literary re-imagining of pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. The third author is Anthony Doerr of Boise, Idaho. Doerr’s 2004 novel, About Grace is a mesmerizing look at family love, loss, regret, and forgiveness that ranges across much dissimilar geographic territory, including Alaska, Cleveland, and the Caribbean.

Brett makes it clear from the outset of Trauma Farm that this is not another cozy paean to the homespun rural life. What else can you say about a farm memoir that opens with its author striding across his acreage in the dead of a summer night without wearing a stitch of clothing? Idiosyncratic, certainly. Brett proves to be a force-of-nature personality, infectious in his enthusiasms, encyclopedic in his interests, unstinting in his criticisms of such outrageous villains as agri-business conglomerates and governmental over-regulation of small farms and their struggling owners.

Trauma Farm is a muddy boots memoir, arranged as a kind of cumulative long day and night on the farm. It is filled with the hard-won, often hilarious lessons learned by Brett, his wife, and their two sons in two decades of toils, turmoils, and pleasures. Brett leaves no opinion unaired, whether it be the smarts of various farm animals, the delights of small-town market life, the wonders of chicken manure as fertilizer, or an attack by a furry monster spider that almost sent the farmer scurrying back to the big city for good.

Brett has long been a published poet and he can till a fine phrase as well as the soil, especially concerning nature’s wonders and mandates. Trauma Farm’s greatest strength remains Brett’s unvarnished portrait of farm life, its rigors and rewards. As he writes, “Sharon and I lost money every year since we began farming.... It took us only a few years to realize we couldn’t make it financially. Every one of our naturally grown free-range sheep cost us $25 when we sold them last year. We paid our customers for the privilege of spending a year growing their lambs. Now that’s farming.

“Yet we’re unwilling to sell the farm. Debt used to terrify me. Farming today is learning how to accept debt—a spiritual exercise in humility. Like the seasons, you live with it. The small farm hasn’t got an ice cube’s chance in hell. But we’ve made our rebel decision. That’s what makes the fight so beautiful. Farming is a profession of hope. You will not meet a farmer without hope even when you encounter a flock of them drinking coffee at the local café, lamenting their lot....”

Trauma Farm has been a national bestseller in Canada, as well as the recipient of a major Canadian prize in nonfiction in November that yielded $25,000 to help offset the Bretts’ farm debt in 2009.

Fisher’s A Sudden Country possesses its own transformative power, rescuing the pioneer saga of wagon trains to Oregon from the tight lasso of Western genre fiction and school textbook history and elevating it to literary art. Inspired by the brief Oregon Trail diary of an 11-year-old ancestor, Fisher fashions a strong narrative that provides stark immediacy to the dramatic landscapes on the way west and the dreary monotonies of life on the trail, plus the haunting uncertainty of Indian encounters.

At the novel’s center is the unlikely love story of its deeply flawed main characters. Lucy Mitchell had been mourning the death of her first husband when she entered into a marriage of convenience with an older man who sternly uproots the family of five to seek a better life in the Northwest. James McLaren, a former Hudson’s Bay Co. trapper, signs on late as a guide of the Mitchells’ wagon train, while still reeling from the death of his children from smallpox and the loss of his Nez Perce wife who left him for another man because of that tragedy. Mitchell and McLaren are inexorably drawn to one another as the trail miles grind on.

Fisher adroitly orchestrates the tension of the trip and the love affair, while also painting evocative portraits of trail life, including: “So they left the Platte at last and climbed the hills, she among the usual army of sheep, goats, dogs, and children; the women around her drifting into accounts of recipes for which none had ingredients any longer, nor would likely in their lives again. Locusts sprang and beat against their dresses. To the south, the startling deep red gorge of rock widened and fell away, and when they were all silent, they could hear, above the muffled wheels, the soft click, click, click of the oxen’s wearing joints.”

A Sudden Country was one of five finalists for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, the only debut among the finalists that year.

Travel and an unlikely love affair also figure prominently in Doerr’s About Grace. This deep, wondrous novel centers on a scientific everyman named David Winkler who is bedeviled by often frightening premonitions that soon become true. A chance encounter with a married bank teller in the supermarket soon lurches into Wednesday afternoon romance; the two lovers impulsively flee Alaska, end up in Cleveland where Winkler gets a job as a TV weatherman and the couple has a daughter named Grace. A premonition of Grace drowning in a flood convinces Winkler to flee his family life without explanation, in hopes of thwarting his infant daughter’s death. He spends two decades in self-imposed exile as a resort handyman in the Caribbean, never knowing the fate of Grace or her mother despite writing many unanswered letters. Then, in hopes of possible reconnection and reconciliation, Winkler finally returns to the United States and embarks on a startling cross-country odyssey that finally delivers him back Alaska for a heart-wrenching rendezvous.

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Doerr’s spare, precise prose creates relentless tension in this enthralling drama filled with seismic surprises, eccentric characters, strange occurrences. About Grace is about love, and its various permutations, many bittersweet. Doerr produces taut tugs at the heart, and sometimes the tear ducts, during many brilliantly understated passages, including this one about Winkler that comes late in the novel:

“He had, ultimately, only one dream left: to know his daughter, to see her hand—what would have become of Grace’s hands? All he could remember was the tiny, intricate detailing of her knuckles, and the way she slept, as if a huntsman had come to seize her, as if her body had been temporarily vacated.”

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

John Douglas Marshall is a critic for The Daily Beast. He was the longtime book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March.