River and Vision: Kim Barnes and the story of loss

 

To Willa Cather's Great Plains, Ivan Doig's Montana, and Cormac McCarthy's borderlands, you can add Kim Barnes's Clearwater River.

Barnes's first three books, the critically acclaimed memoirs In the Wilderness and Hungry for the World and her powerful debut novel, Finding Caruso, all take place along Idaho's Clearwater River. Her soon-to-be-released second novel, A Country Called Home, explores this particular piece of geography even more deeply. "I sometimes think that each book I've written is an elegy to the river," Barnes says. She's right, but she's too modest: In so eloquently memorializing the Clearwater, she has also begun to elegize the whole of the American West.

Kim Barnes teaches creative writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.

Between summer fishing trips, Barnes talked with HCN freelancer     Joe Wilkins about her river and her vision.To Willa Cather's Great Plains, Ivan Doig's Montana, and Cormac McCarthy's borderlands, you can add Kim Barnes's Clearwater River.

Barnes's first three books, the critically acclaimed memoirs In the Wilderness and Hungry for the World and her powerful debut novel, Finding Caruso, all take place along Idaho's Clearwater River. Her soon-to-be-released second novel, A Country Called Home, explores this particular piece of geography even more deeply. "I sometimes think that each book I've written is an elegy to the river," Barnes says. She's right, but she's too modest: In so eloquently memorializing the Clearwater, she has also begun to elegize the whole of the American West.

Kim Barnes teaches creative writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.

Between summer fishing trips, Barnes talked with HCN freelancer Joe Wilkins about her river and her vision.

HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Could you talk a bit about your faithfulness to the Clearwater River country?

KIM BARNES I was born and raised in Clearwater country, of course, but that's not enough to explain why it informs and defines my mythology as much as it does.

My parents came to Idaho from Oklahoma in 1956, leaving lives defined by poverty, alcoholism, and tragedy. ... My father was a logger, my mother a housewife, and they were very young and, for a time, very happy. (We) took great joy in small, good things: a mess of brook trout  -- enough to feed the extended family  -- was something to feel happy about. ... When my parents joined the Pilgrim Holiness Church (a severely fundamentalist branch of the Pentecostal Church), my life changed. My father had a crisis of faith. He believed that he heard the voice of God telling him we must leave the wilderness we loved. (So) we loaded up our old Chevy and, within twenty-four hours, we were gone. Our new home was Lewiston, a small city 90 miles south. ...

(Yet) my husband and I moved back to the Clearwater. We raised our children there. We wove the story of who we were to the story of the land and the river. Eight years ago, when we left to take jobs in Moscow, Idaho, just 60 miles north, it again broke my heart. I am still grieving. How can I live without water?

My "faithfulness to this particular place," then, is defined by experience, by intimacy, by memory, and by loss. As my author friend Debra Magpie Earling says, "Without loss, there can be no story."

HCN How is this story  -- your love and loss of the Clearwater River  -- the story of the American West?

BARNES It's a story of the westward movement toward hope and plenty, a story that seldom proved true. It's a story of the nomadic nature of those living and working in the West. It's a story of how class has defined the majority of the West's inhabitants, that sense of everything being maybe: Maybe the rains will come; maybe the forests won't burn; maybe we'll get our elk this year; maybe my father's back will heal; maybe my mother will sell enough pies to buy herself a new coat before winter. One of my family's favorite sayings is, "Lord willing and the creek don't rise." But, of course, the creek, at some point, always rises.

It's not surprising that the journey to Lewiston has taken on mythical meaning in my writer's mind. It was a move that broke my sense of family and my connection to the land. It was a fall from innocence. I left those woods a naive girl and entered into my young woman's life, defined by a faith that taught that, as a daughter of Eve, I was inherently flawed and a danger to myself and those around me. When I entered junior high, I quickly rebelled against my father and my faith. My life fell apart. The fact that the Corps of Engineers dammed the Clearwater that year adds yet another layer of metaphor: my childhood cut off, an impenetrable, concrete face separating me from that girl I once had been. Not the creek but the river rising.