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Know the West

Shooting life’s rapids

Review of ‘If Not For This’ by Pete Fromm.


If Not For This
Pete Fromm
240 pages,
softcover: $15.95.
Red Hen Press, 2014.

In Pete Fromm’s new novel, If Not For This, the newlywed narrator, Maddy — a river guide in the Rocky Mountains — wonders how to avoid the “wicked-ass snags” that so often upset marriages. What’s going to keep the union between her and her husband, fellow-guide Dalt, from running aground on “those long, gray, dry gravel bars”?

Unfortunately, their marital raft capsizes early on, when Maddy is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis soon after conceiving their first child. The unmistakable symptoms, increasing in frequency and severity, are rendered in spare but devastating prose. MS “turns the ground liquid, steals your memory, pulls words off your tongue before you can open your mouth”; it ignominiously “swirls your balance into some kind of joke.” Maddy and Dalt’s fledgling outfitting business founders, and they are forced to give up their dream and move into town. Crippling disease — the curse of physical helplessness — seems to strike especially hard at those who wrest joy, meaning and livelihoods from their physical prowess, Fromm suggests. But buoyed by Maddy’s feistiness, the story never turns mawkish or melodramatic; throughout the decades of her decline she despises self-pity, finding strength in Dalt and their children.

In passing, Fromm — a Montanan and former river ranger — spotlights some of adventure tourism’s shadow  -aspects: long days, lack of health -insurance, liability suits and homeless river guides “priced out of the valley we worked so hard bringing people into.” Yet the work beats “swinging a hammer just to live for the days off,” and there are fringe benefits, such as “getting to stare at the Tetons all day, watch the sun gold them every morning, turn them stark and flat through the day, leaving nothing but purpled cutouts against the evening.”

Throughout, Fromm broaches what might be the whitewater professional’s chief existential dilemma, a thought that assails us all: “How could you ever make a move if you knew what was out there waiting for you?”