A clear stream and a cottonwood tree anchor Karen Brichoux’s pensive new novel. The Girl She Left Behind tells the story of Katherine Earle, who flees the big city to return to her tiny hometown in a Montana mountain valley.

Katherine had crept away from Montana with her musician fiancé as a lovestruck 18-year-old, without telling her best friend or her two living relatives. After things fell apart in Los Angeles — Katherine felt like she didn’t belong, her husband’s band failed — she wandered around the Northwest for three years. Working odd jobs, she tried to postpone the inevitable: her guilty, tail-between-the-legs return to her home in Silver Creek.

Brichoux reminds the reader how powerfully the landscape of "home" can define a person. Katherine is confused by her aunt’s final wishes, her strained relationship with her uncle, the shaky ground of her old high school friendships. Montana’s defining features — its biting cold, wide skies and vast mountains — offer the comfort and certainty she can find nowhere else. Mourning her aunt’s passing, she walks the dirt road to the clear stream at the edge of town.

" ‘Eva’s dead,’ I say to the cottonwood, leaning my cheek against the rough bark. Above me the leaves rattle a late-summer symphony. I wrap my arms around the trunk. I don’t want the human touch. I want to sink into the tree and become its spirit. Daphne turned into laurel. Something solid and immovable. Something at rest and yet still alive."

Brichoux grounds the story in concrete physical details: The way a hollow wind tells Katherine that snow is coming, the way nostril-freezing air clears a cloudy mind, the way the stars in Montana illuminate darkness of all kinds. In Brichoux’s world, home is defined by more than people or buildings. It’s the place where some things are certain, like the unmistakable dusty-sweet smell after a high desert rain.