River and Vision: Kim Barnes and the story of loss

by Joe Wilkins

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.

HCN From lavish dinners at restaurants back East to pan-fried trout with sliced spuds alongside the river, what we eat and how we eat play a big role in (your soon-to-be released novel)  A Country Called Home. Why?

BARNES I had never paid much attention to food in my writing until several years ago when I was visiting a freshman literature class at the University of Idaho. The students had read In the Wilderness, and ... one young man asked, "Why do you spend so much time writing about food?" It was the first time I had ever really thought about food as a kind of motif in my narratives.

Of course, the easy answer is, like all writers, I pay attention to detail. If I'm writing a scene in which the characters are eating breakfast, the details are important: Are they eating cheese Danishes or blood sausage? Are they drinking boiled coffee sweetened with condensed milk or Earl Grey with a slice of lemon? ... Nothing characterizes so much as the rituals and the choices we make when it comes to food. But sometimes choice has nothing to do with it.

And this is what I realized as I attempted to answer the young man's question. The fact is that for parts of my young life, when we were living in the logging camps and towns of the Clearwater National Forest, food on the table was not a given. The food we did have was what my mother called "stick to your ribs" food  -- bacon, eggs, pancakes, fried potatoes, fried chicken, brown beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, etcetera. We ate deer meat, elk meat, bear meat and trout. We gathered gallons of huckleberries every summer and ate pies all winter. My mother froze and canned everything she could. ... But keeping hunger at bay wasn't always easy, especially when my father was laid off from work, which was often. My mother says that the worst year, she was down to making "water gravy" -- grease, flour, water, and salt.

So food is something I paid attention to, yet I had no idea how very limited my awareness of food was. I had never tasted an avocado or heard of basil until I was an adult. Now, I'm lucky enough to have enjoyed chateaubriand in New York. Somehow, that journey  -- from simple sustenance to the privileged palate of someone who has more choices in food than she ever could have imagined  -- has come to define the journeys of my characters as well. ...

HCN In certain respects, Elise, the heroine of part two of A Country Called Home, is the daughter of two fathers: Deracotte, her visionary and troubled biological father, and Manny, her capable and supportive caretaker. How are we in the West daughters and sons of two fathers?

BARNES It's true, isn't it? There are so many ways in which the West  -- or at least the idea of the West  -- is a study in contradictions. We are both nomadic and desirous to put down roots. We idealize the wide-open spaces and fill them up with our homes and cars and boats and RVs. We want both community and isolation. ...

A Country Called Home observes (how) these dichotomies converge. What happens when the old codes and myths no longer hold? How do we define tribe and community when the boundaries of our towns and villages and farms are stretched and infiltrated by people we've never met, with whom we have no common narrative? ... In Deracotte, we see the idealistic, unprepared tenderfoot who is immediately in over his head but whose love of the place is genuine. (Conversely) Manny was born into and raised by the local community. Deracotte fly-fishes; Manny baits a hook. Deracotte imagines the rise of the fish to the fly; Manny imagines what's for dinner. Manny is the "native" that Deracotte wishes he could be, while Deracotte has all that Manny wants: a home, a wife, a family. ...

As the daughter raised by these two fathers, Elise is taught to live in two worlds  -- and that is exactly what many of us in the New West have learned to do. ... (We have) an idealistic sense of our own possibility (and) a rock-solid sense of where we've come from. We can wander aimlessly and suffer existential angst with the best of them, but if you back us hard against a rock, we come back fighting. This is Elise. There was never any doubt in my mind that she would survive her ordeals. ... Maybe this is a projection of my hope for the West as it struggles to find its own identity.

HCN You dedicate A Country Called Home to your deceased father, saying, "Your vision yet guides me." What was his vision of the West? What is yours?

BARNES My father was a man of large ideas and enormous character. He was as coded as any of Hemingway's heroes. Because of him, and because of my background in a fundamentalist faith, I'm drawn to tragedy, to stories of blindness, penance and redemption, and I think that it easily could be argued that the West itself is defined by a kind of tragic vision.

(Many have said) that "men kill what they love the most," and if that's not the West, I don't know what is. As I once told an audience in Berkeley, who seemed stunned to hear it, no one loves the wilderness more than loggers do. ... It seems contradictory, I know, but I'll never forget my father talking about his passion for living in the Clearwater Forest and how he didn't realize that he was destroying the very thing that he loved the most. "We didn't know," he said, and for the first time in my life, I saw tears in his eyes. ... All my father knew was this was where he wanted to live and that (logging) was what he had to do to recognize his dream.

And this brings us back to Debra Earling's assertion: There can be no story without loss. In my (work), it is loss that allows the connection to the community and to the land. The West as I knew it is gone. The ache of that loss is one that echoes through every story I write.

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