A rower for years, Kate Gray coached crew and taught in an East Coast boarding school at the start of her teaching career. Now after more than twenty years teaching at a community college in Oregon, Kate tends her students’ stories. Her first full-length book of poems, Another Sunset We Survive (2007) was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and followed chapbooks, Bone-Knowing (2006), winner of the Gertrude Press Poetry Prize and Where She Goes (2000), winner of the Blue Light Chapbook Prize. Her debut novel, Carry the Sky, was released by Forest Avenue Press earlier this month. Over the years she’s been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, Norcroft, and Soapstone, and a fellowship from the Oregon Literary Arts. Her poetry and essays have been nominated for Pushcart prizes. She and her partner live in a purple house in Portland, Oregon, with their sidekick, Rafi, a very patient dog.
The books by my bed break my heart with their rich descriptions of the places they explore. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I recognize our setting as our most pervasive form of spirituality, and our writing tends to pay homage. What I often find in the books that strike me the most is a place described with such presence it walks within the characters. An essay that helps writers recognize the importance of place is Dorothy Allison’s “Place” written for the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop this July 2014. In it she defines place as…”not just what your feet are crossing to get to somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page—articulates with deliberate purpose.” She tells us with the examples she uses that place breaks the reader’s heart. She instructs: break your readers with details.
Carter Sickels, in his award-winning novel, The Evening Hour, (Bloomsbury USA, 2012) does just that. He tells his story through the eyes of a young man who is trapped by poverty and his loyalty to his grandmother and the land they live on. The story reveals the rape of West Virginia by coal companies. The description of the setting caught me by the throat. In the novel a coal company levels mountain ranges, poisons land and water, and swindles communities. On one level the action of the novel revolves around a massive landslide due to the effects of clear-cutting, gutting the mountain by dynamite, and building flimsy dams that are overrun with toxic runoff. While the narrator is deeply flawed, it is his decency and generosity toward the most isolated and destitute in his community that redeem him. The writing captures the complexity of characters and economics, the choices made and the ones imposed.
Ten days later he drove his mother and grandmother to Rockcamp to see what was left. On the way, they passed by yards where sofas and mattresses and toys and knickknacks were laid out, drying in the sun. As they got farther away from Stillwell they saw heaps of trees, the remains of houses. Blackened craters were cut out of the land, like burnings. Nothing looked like it could be saved.” (235)
From this book I learned more about the ways that people get stuck, stuck where they live, stuck in cycles that seem from the outside breakable, but aren’t.
In Nancy Slavin’s novel, Moorings (Feather Mountain Press, 2013), the place is as present as the characters:
Many of the small Alaskan fishing towns along the Inside Passage have looked just as water-stained and run down as this, . . . with only a few people milling along docks and waving their way past piles of snowdrifts. The snow, she notices, is old, end-of-the-season snow, the kind that exhaust fumes from car engines have spotted black, mixed in with months’ worth of gravel and dirt and soot. But the town looks to be what she’d expected, weathered and full of stories.” (15)
The story about discovering the complex nature of family secrets is intricate. The writing is layered with detailed descriptions that bring to life not only the ways that families reveal and heal, but also the way that landscapes can be devastated and renewed.
Both of these books will transport you out of your house and into a landscape you may have never known before. The writers will break your heart in a good way, by helping you understand deeply the importance of lightening our impact on the land and deepening our impact on each other.
What literary places have you inhabited that continued to resonate long after you closed the cover? What made them so memorable?