River and Vision: Kim Barnes and the story of loss

  • Idaho author Kim Barnes


Page 2

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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