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
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.