224 pages, softcover: $16.
Development's brutal erosion of the landscape is a fact of life in the West. In the hands of lesser writers, it often becomes a cliché -- shorthand for the destructive side of human nature and the grief and rage it provokes. Even when tackled by good writers, it can flatten into a monotonous, self-righteous howl of blame.
But in Theft, Colorado essayist BK Loren's first novel, the loss of nature is linked to the loss of a loved one, and grief becomes a territory to be explored. The novel's narrator, Willa Robbins, is a wildlife tracker involved in the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf to New Mexico. Then she is asked to track down her estranged brother, who is wanted for murder.
Her return to the landscape of her Colorado childhood (now built over and utterly changed) revives memories of her dead mother, her violent but beloved brother, Zeb, and their shared history of petty theft and hard choices. The connection between land and family is established early: "That land felt like blood relation to me," thinks Willa as she drives north, "a place I could never squeeze out of my bones."
The most vivid parts of the book concern her brother. As a child, she helped him rob houses by slipping into a cracked-open window "like a penny into a bank." Years later, when he's a fugitive, he overhears the police talking to his common-law wife and reflects how he and she "can read each other like rivers, the fluidity, the steadiness, the soft rage of water shaping something as solid as a rock." The landscape that enfolds the story is rich with scents, sounds and stories of its own.
Loren's novel is a meditation on what can be owned and what can be stolen -- and what can never be taken. Loss is everywhere in the book, in all its forms: theft, neglect, attrition, regret, disease, death, extinction. But so are its opposites: endurance, restoration and reinvention. From the way Willa finds comfort in the "shameful" ruin of her grandparents' condemned house, to how she eventually cobbles together a new family of friends and acquaintances, she learns how to grow from her grief. Her work with wolf reintroduction becomes a counterpoint to the tragedy of the unraveling of her family; despite the overwhelming obstacles faced by the wolves, their tentative steps toward recovery still offer a promise of renewal.