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A Sudden Country: A Novel

A Sudden Country: A Novel by Karen Fisher. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006, $13.95, 400 pages.

ABOUT THE BOOK:

A vivid and revelatory novel based on actual events of the 1847 Oregon migration, A Sudden Country follows two characters of remarkable complexity and strength in a journey of survival and redemption. James MacLaren, once a resourceful and ambitious Hudson's Bay Company trader, has renounced his aspirations for a quiet family life in the Bitterroot wilderness. Yet his life is overturned in the winter of 1846, when his Nez Perce wife deserts him and his children die of smallpox. In the grip of a profound sorrow, MacLaren, whose home once spanned a continent, sets out to find his wife. But an act of secret vengeance changes his course, introducing him to a different wife and mother: Lucy Mitchell, journeying westward with her family.

Lucy, a remarried widow, careful mother, and reluctant emigrant, is drawn at once to the self-possessed MacLaren. Convinced that he is the key to her family's safe passage, she persuades her husband to employ him. As their hidden stories and obsessions unfold, and pasts and cultures collide, both Lucy and MacLaren must confront the people they have truly been, are, and may become.

Alive with incident and insight, presenting with rare scope and intimacy the complex relations among 19th-century traders, immigrants, and Native Americans, A Sudden Country: A Novel is, above all, a heroic and unforgettable story of love and loss, sacrifice and understanding.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. Fisher builds a grand, mesmerizing novel on the bare chronicle left by her ancestor Emma Ruth Ross Slavin, who was 11 when her family joined the 1847 Oregon migration. Emma's mother, Lucy Mitchell, is a widow, remarried despite her grief for her first husband and resenting the decision of her second husband, Israel Mitchell, to emigrate. James MacLaren is a Scottish trapper for the Hudson's Bay Company, uneasy both with the emigrants and with the Native Americans, whose fate is bound up with his own. When MacLaren loses his children to smallpox and his Nez Perce wife to another trapper, he tracks the trapper to Lucy Mitchell's wagon train. Lucy and MacLaren's charged encounter opens her up to the land and him to his own need for roots as he signs on to guide her little band on their trek from the Iowa banks of the Missouri to the Columbia River in Oregon. Fisher tells their stories, past and present, with a poet's sense of the sound and heft of each word. Her compassionate, unsentimental eye makes even minor characters unforgettable. She reveals the labor of running a household when there is no house; equally well, she shows us mountains of death and splendor. In the collision between household and wilderness, Fisher brilliantly illuminates both the tragedy and the new life wrought by manifest destiny. This is a great novel of the American West.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Karen Fisher has lived in the West as a teacher, wrangler, farmer, and carpenter. She now lives with her husband and their three children on an island in the Puget Sound. For her first novel, A Sudden Country, she has won numerous awards, including: 2006 Best Fiction Award -- Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association; 2006 First Novel Award, Virginia Commonwealth University; 2006 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. Ms. Fisher was also a finalist for the 2006 Pen/Faulkner Award, the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award, and the Spur Award.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

I phoned Karen Fisher on a Saturday afternoon in early August. Her sons were hanging out at the local farmers market, her daughter was at a birthday party, and her husband was working. Ms. Fisher was taking advantage of the lull to revise a screenplay of A Sudden Country. She started writing this story of Oregon immigration when she and her husband became impatient with the work of other authors on the same subject."What was it, specifically, about those other books that you did not find satisfying?"

"So often it seems like writers are very comfortable at their desks and don't really spend enough time, particularly when they're writing about the 19th Century, with the lives and the artifacts of the time they're writing about. It seems like men are always very good at writing about guns or something like that, but when it comes to animals, clothing, the practicality of living outdoors, building fires, or just the elements of living in the world, there are sometimes such peculiar inaccuracies or inabilities. We knew what it was like and we knew what it should sound like, and writers who had always stayed behind their desks were just pretending."

Karen Fisher's parents both attended U.C. Berkeley in the early '70s. "How does a kid who grew up in Berkeley develop an affinity for trappers and traders from the Hudson's Bay Company?"

"I think some things you're just born with. I know I was born with a deep, desperate abiding love for horses. Even as a youngster, I had this sense that the world was too crowded and too well-known. What really appealed to me were places where people hadn't been before. As a young girl I used to sit, during those horrible family car rides, and I would mentally make everything that was new disappear. I would eliminate things from the landscape so I could be in the wilderness again while we were driving through cities.

"When I found my first books about mountain men and trappers, I realized that there really had been those people. Although I was just a kid, I realized that I'd been looking for that story for as long as I knew."

"Where did you first encounter the phrase, 'sudden country'?"

"It's trapping slang, and I think I found it in one of Frederick Rugston's books. It referred to a region where everything conspired to make for the possibility of danger, a place where something could happen very suddenly. It had a great double meaning, too. Between 1833 and 1849, Oregon went from being a jointly occupied territory, where barely any Europeans were, to being a state in the United States."

Ms. Fisher worked on her book for nearly 15 years. While doing so, she taught history and English at a high school in California and then moved with husband David to a 50-acre farm in Idaho, where they raised organic produce. In 1998, Karen, David, and their two small children moved on to a houseboat. A year later, having given birth to their third child, the family built and moved into a one-room cabin on an island in Puget Sound. I asked her how these experiences helped shape her work.

"When I first started to write the book, I tried to learn the truth about what it was like to be these characters and to live in this time, just by reading about it. I was sort of cocky, and I kept thinking, 'I know all about animals, and I've been in the mountains and I've camped out, and I know what it's like to be dirty, so I'm qualified to write this book.'

"But it wasn't until I'd lived through the experience of poverty and having children and being pulled away from the things that made me comfortable that I was able to write something that was deeply true, emotionally. Every time my kids got hurt, or an animal died, or I got horribly ill, it made its way into my writing. Instead of keeping a journal day by day and month by month, everything that happened would find its correct place in the book. And then, because those things were happening to me and I was learning what it felt like, the plot would start to change. I was constantly revising."

"What political land mines did you have to wade through in order to write about the interaction between settlers and native peoples?"

"As much as anything, what I wanted to redress in this book was the dual legacy that I'd grown up with. My grandfather had been a cowboy, and he bought me my first pair of cowboy boots. I remember fighting over the television on Gunsmoke night. I was proud to be part of the legacy of 'The Golden West,' and then I went to college. It was during the height of the AIM movement and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and the awakening of white guilt -- of accepting of our responsibility for the destruction of a whole culture.

"It shook me up. I really didn't know how to deal with it. It just seemed horrible. This was the Vietnam era, and everybody was feeling very guilty and very 'PC.' Then, as I was working on this book, I started to read contemporary sources.

"It struck me that, in fact, the ennobling of Indian culture and vilification of whites had skewed the picture yet again. We'd really romanticized Indians, Indian culture, and unfairly I began to think -- accused whites of being much more violent and aggressive than anything that I read really bore out as truth. It doesn't make the outcome of the story any happier for either culture, but the fact was that it was just a terrible, terrible misunderstanding .

"I wanted to stop playing bad guys and good guys and understand that misunderstanding. I think that's really the only way I can go forward happily and accept my own past and what happened, and forgive. It seems a necessary approach to all cultural conflict to ask, 'what's happening here and why?'

"It was very important to me to get it right. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like I had enough help from anyone who could have advised me well. The whole subject is still so tender. The history of tribal people is personal and they don't want it appropriated by anyone for any reason that they don't understand.

"I didn't even know how to start. I wrote a few letters, I got no reply, and I tried to work in a couple of different ways to get some advice and answers and just to ask, 'Is that right, what I've written? Am I representing this correctly?' I just got nothing .

"So I just had to read as much as I could and live as much as I could in the minds of the people at that time. I had the Nez Perce dictionary, so I would sit and read night after night after night, trying to absorb those words. I studied what words were there and what words were not there, as a way of understanding what thoughts are available in that language and what thoughts aren't available."

As Ms. Fisher is talking, I remind her of a section in the book where an aged Indian woman is speaking with one of the main characters about her perception of white culture. She wonders at white people's constant movement and why they don't stay put in the place that's made 'home' by the stories of the people who live there. "It sounds like you've been a wanderer your whole life. For you, what does home mean?"

"That chapter was really a gift to me from this island where I ended up moving. I had been so far from any community or sense of community, that I didn't know that I was missing it. I had always been happily living in isolation, and I had no idea what it was like to live in a place where people really knew each other. Not only do they know each other now, lots of them really know each other. They know you, and they know whose various kids are whose and whose husbands used to be whose and whose wives used to be whose. If they know your children who are in preschool, they will know them when they are graduating from high school, they will know them as adults, and they will know their children. That whole concept was so unfamiliar to me. It was such a revelation to finally realize what a tribe is ."

"Do you think you will stay on the island?"

"It's a battle now. If we hadn't recognized the importance of this community, we probably would be thinking of relocating. My daughter is 13, and she only has seven kids in her graduating class. We all feel like we want a little more room to expand, but none of us can quite fathom leaving."

"After 15 years of writing, what are your children making of your success?"

"Well, they're trying to cash in on all the things we've been promising them all these years. We always had the line, 'When mom gets the book published, we'll do, or get, this or that.' Now, their sights are rising. First my son wanted a skateboard, but now he wants a scooter. My daughter got an iPod, and now she wants a computer."

"During that long writing process did the children feel a sense of sibling rivalry with the book itself?"

"The real problem in terms of sibling rivalry is that we actually have money to buy a couple of trophy horses. They were my treat for the book's success. So, now the kids are insanely jealous because my husband wants to work with the horses a lot, and we sit around talking horses, horses, horses, all the time. 'We don't want to hear any more about horses!' the kids keep saying."

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San Diego in books - Henry Miller, Rick DeMarinis, Max Miller, Alfred Alcorn

Don Bauder, World Almanac, Louisiana Purchase Exposition Commission

A Sudden Country: A Novel by Karen Fisher. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006, $13.95, 400 pages.

ABOUT THE BOOK:

A vivid and revelatory novel based on actual events of the 1847 Oregon migration, A Sudden Country follows two characters of remarkable complexity and strength in a journey of survival and redemption. James MacLaren, once a resourceful and ambitious Hudson's Bay Company trader, has renounced his aspirations for a quiet family life in the Bitterroot wilderness. Yet his life is overturned in the winter of 1846, when his Nez Perce wife deserts him and his children die of smallpox. In the grip of a profound sorrow, MacLaren, whose home once spanned a continent, sets out to find his wife. But an act of secret vengeance changes his course, introducing him to a different wife and mother: Lucy Mitchell, journeying westward with her family.

Lucy, a remarried widow, careful mother, and reluctant emigrant, is drawn at once to the self-possessed MacLaren. Convinced that he is the key to her family's safe passage, she persuades her husband to employ him. As their hidden stories and obsessions unfold, and pasts and cultures collide, both Lucy and MacLaren must confront the people they have truly been, are, and may become.

Alive with incident and insight, presenting with rare scope and intimacy the complex relations among 19th-century traders, immigrants, and Native Americans, A Sudden Country: A Novel is, above all, a heroic and unforgettable story of love and loss, sacrifice and understanding.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. Fisher builds a grand, mesmerizing novel on the bare chronicle left by her ancestor Emma Ruth Ross Slavin, who was 11 when her family joined the 1847 Oregon migration. Emma's mother, Lucy Mitchell, is a widow, remarried despite her grief for her first husband and resenting the decision of her second husband, Israel Mitchell, to emigrate. James MacLaren is a Scottish trapper for the Hudson's Bay Company, uneasy both with the emigrants and with the Native Americans, whose fate is bound up with his own. When MacLaren loses his children to smallpox and his Nez Perce wife to another trapper, he tracks the trapper to Lucy Mitchell's wagon train. Lucy and MacLaren's charged encounter opens her up to the land and him to his own need for roots as he signs on to guide her little band on their trek from the Iowa banks of the Missouri to the Columbia River in Oregon. Fisher tells their stories, past and present, with a poet's sense of the sound and heft of each word. Her compassionate, unsentimental eye makes even minor characters unforgettable. She reveals the labor of running a household when there is no house; equally well, she shows us mountains of death and splendor. In the collision between household and wilderness, Fisher brilliantly illuminates both the tragedy and the new life wrought by manifest destiny. This is a great novel of the American West.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Karen Fisher has lived in the West as a teacher, wrangler, farmer, and carpenter. She now lives with her husband and their three children on an island in the Puget Sound. For her first novel, A Sudden Country, she has won numerous awards, including: 2006 Best Fiction Award -- Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association; 2006 First Novel Award, Virginia Commonwealth University; 2006 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. Ms. Fisher was also a finalist for the 2006 Pen/Faulkner Award, the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award, and the Spur Award.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

I phoned Karen Fisher on a Saturday afternoon in early August. Her sons were hanging out at the local farmers market, her daughter was at a birthday party, and her husband was working. Ms. Fisher was taking advantage of the lull to revise a screenplay of A Sudden Country. She started writing this story of Oregon immigration when she and her husband became impatient with the work of other authors on the same subject."What was it, specifically, about those other books that you did not find satisfying?"

"So often it seems like writers are very comfortable at their desks and don't really spend enough time, particularly when they're writing about the 19th Century, with the lives and the artifacts of the time they're writing about. It seems like men are always very good at writing about guns or something like that, but when it comes to animals, clothing, the practicality of living outdoors, building fires, or just the elements of living in the world, there are sometimes such peculiar inaccuracies or inabilities. We knew what it was like and we knew what it should sound like, and writers who had always stayed behind their desks were just pretending."

Karen Fisher's parents both attended U.C. Berkeley in the early '70s. "How does a kid who grew up in Berkeley develop an affinity for trappers and traders from the Hudson's Bay Company?"

"I think some things you're just born with. I know I was born with a deep, desperate abiding love for horses. Even as a youngster, I had this sense that the world was too crowded and too well-known. What really appealed to me were places where people hadn't been before. As a young girl I used to sit, during those horrible family car rides, and I would mentally make everything that was new disappear. I would eliminate things from the landscape so I could be in the wilderness again while we were driving through cities.

"When I found my first books about mountain men and trappers, I realized that there really had been those people. Although I was just a kid, I realized that I'd been looking for that story for as long as I knew."

"Where did you first encounter the phrase, 'sudden country'?"

"It's trapping slang, and I think I found it in one of Frederick Rugston's books. It referred to a region where everything conspired to make for the possibility of danger, a place where something could happen very suddenly. It had a great double meaning, too. Between 1833 and 1849, Oregon went from being a jointly occupied territory, where barely any Europeans were, to being a state in the United States."

Ms. Fisher worked on her book for nearly 15 years. While doing so, she taught history and English at a high school in California and then moved with husband David to a 50-acre farm in Idaho, where they raised organic produce. In 1998, Karen, David, and their two small children moved on to a houseboat. A year later, having given birth to their third child, the family built and moved into a one-room cabin on an island in Puget Sound. I asked her how these experiences helped shape her work.

"When I first started to write the book, I tried to learn the truth about what it was like to be these characters and to live in this time, just by reading about it. I was sort of cocky, and I kept thinking, 'I know all about animals, and I've been in the mountains and I've camped out, and I know what it's like to be dirty, so I'm qualified to write this book.'

"But it wasn't until I'd lived through the experience of poverty and having children and being pulled away from the things that made me comfortable that I was able to write something that was deeply true, emotionally. Every time my kids got hurt, or an animal died, or I got horribly ill, it made its way into my writing. Instead of keeping a journal day by day and month by month, everything that happened would find its correct place in the book. And then, because those things were happening to me and I was learning what it felt like, the plot would start to change. I was constantly revising."

"What political land mines did you have to wade through in order to write about the interaction between settlers and native peoples?"

"As much as anything, what I wanted to redress in this book was the dual legacy that I'd grown up with. My grandfather had been a cowboy, and he bought me my first pair of cowboy boots. I remember fighting over the television on Gunsmoke night. I was proud to be part of the legacy of 'The Golden West,' and then I went to college. It was during the height of the AIM movement and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and the awakening of white guilt -- of accepting of our responsibility for the destruction of a whole culture.

"It shook me up. I really didn't know how to deal with it. It just seemed horrible. This was the Vietnam era, and everybody was feeling very guilty and very 'PC.' Then, as I was working on this book, I started to read contemporary sources.

"It struck me that, in fact, the ennobling of Indian culture and vilification of whites had skewed the picture yet again. We'd really romanticized Indians, Indian culture, and unfairly I began to think -- accused whites of being much more violent and aggressive than anything that I read really bore out as truth. It doesn't make the outcome of the story any happier for either culture, but the fact was that it was just a terrible, terrible misunderstanding .

"I wanted to stop playing bad guys and good guys and understand that misunderstanding. I think that's really the only way I can go forward happily and accept my own past and what happened, and forgive. It seems a necessary approach to all cultural conflict to ask, 'what's happening here and why?'

"It was very important to me to get it right. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like I had enough help from anyone who could have advised me well. The whole subject is still so tender. The history of tribal people is personal and they don't want it appropriated by anyone for any reason that they don't understand.

"I didn't even know how to start. I wrote a few letters, I got no reply, and I tried to work in a couple of different ways to get some advice and answers and just to ask, 'Is that right, what I've written? Am I representing this correctly?' I just got nothing .

"So I just had to read as much as I could and live as much as I could in the minds of the people at that time. I had the Nez Perce dictionary, so I would sit and read night after night after night, trying to absorb those words. I studied what words were there and what words were not there, as a way of understanding what thoughts are available in that language and what thoughts aren't available."

As Ms. Fisher is talking, I remind her of a section in the book where an aged Indian woman is speaking with one of the main characters about her perception of white culture. She wonders at white people's constant movement and why they don't stay put in the place that's made 'home' by the stories of the people who live there. "It sounds like you've been a wanderer your whole life. For you, what does home mean?"

"That chapter was really a gift to me from this island where I ended up moving. I had been so far from any community or sense of community, that I didn't know that I was missing it. I had always been happily living in isolation, and I had no idea what it was like to live in a place where people really knew each other. Not only do they know each other now, lots of them really know each other. They know you, and they know whose various kids are whose and whose husbands used to be whose and whose wives used to be whose. If they know your children who are in preschool, they will know them when they are graduating from high school, they will know them as adults, and they will know their children. That whole concept was so unfamiliar to me. It was such a revelation to finally realize what a tribe is ."

"Do you think you will stay on the island?"

"It's a battle now. If we hadn't recognized the importance of this community, we probably would be thinking of relocating. My daughter is 13, and she only has seven kids in her graduating class. We all feel like we want a little more room to expand, but none of us can quite fathom leaving."

"After 15 years of writing, what are your children making of your success?"

"Well, they're trying to cash in on all the things we've been promising them all these years. We always had the line, 'When mom gets the book published, we'll do, or get, this or that.' Now, their sights are rising. First my son wanted a skateboard, but now he wants a scooter. My daughter got an iPod, and now she wants a computer."

"During that long writing process did the children feel a sense of sibling rivalry with the book itself?"

"The real problem in terms of sibling rivalry is that we actually have money to buy a couple of trophy horses. They were my treat for the book's success. So, now the kids are insanely jealous because my husband wants to work with the horses a lot, and we sit around talking horses, horses, horses, all the time. 'We don't want to hear any more about horses!' the kids keep saying."

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