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


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.


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.


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.


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."

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