Karen Fisher’s A Sudden Country follows two characters, James MacLaren and Lucy Mitchell, who cross each other’s path on this harrowing adventure, set in 1847, to reach the Oregon territory.
MacLaren, once a trader for the Hudson Bay Company, suffers the ultimate tragedy -- his wife deserts him, and then his three children die of smallpox. Unable to deal with his grief over both losses, he decides to try to find his wife. As his journey heads east, he runs into Lucy Mitchell, a remarried widow, who is traveling west with her new husband and four children to the new frontier. In MacLaren, Lucy sees a formidable-ness that she believes she and her family will need to survive, and she convinces her husband Israel to hire MacLaren to help drive them across country, a land that MacLaren knows well.
Part love story, part western, Fisher’s magical and mystical language and harsh but effective descriptions of the conditions under which the pioneers suffered makes this novel both majestic and heart-breaking.
One aspect that propels the story is its precise details of the journey itself: the daily setting up and breaking camp, the meals, especially the making of them out of little, the washing of clothes and bodies, the river crossings, the aches of muscles from walking all day, and even the smells associated with such, especially those associated with illness and death.
Even though there are places in the novel where Fisher seems to drift [she loves a sentence fragment], her poetic approach in some passages reminded me of Cormac McCarthy, but unlike him, she is inconsistent; however, her imagery filled chapter names seem suggestive of more than just what happens: “The Heart So Quick,” “Wild Stone Heart” or “To Drink From Empty Cups.”
BTW: Fisher based this novel on her own family. Her great-great-great grandmother was eleven years old when she rode in a covered wagon to Oregon with her mother, Lucy Mitchell.
ETA: I know that my blog has been MIB, but I have been busy. Really. :)