Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"A Country Called Home"

Kim Barnes' books include the novel Finding Caruso and two memoirs, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country—a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize—and Hungry for the World.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, A Country Called Home, and reported the following:
What a relief to turn to p. 69 of A Country Called Home and find that something is actually happening. And what is happening is one of my favorite scenes from the novel: Helen is giving birth to Elise--not in a hospital, but in a tent in the middle of nowhere.

It is 1960, and Helen and her new husband Thomas Deracotte have moved from Connecticut to Idaho in search of the "good life." They are part of the back-to-the-land movement that stoked many an eastern idealist's journey west. Helen is a young educated woman of privilege; her husband Thomas is a newly-minted physician with little real-world experience. Both are naive and idealistic, but for different reasons...and with tragically different outcomes. Manny is the young hired hand who knows more than Helen and Thomas ever will about what it means to live off the land. By the time the book ends, all three will have become entwined in a story of loss and love.

What I like about this scene is that it provides both drama and a touch of humor. Things could go right, or things could go terribly wrong. In stories that observe human attempts at a utopian existence, this is the constant tension. But isn't that tension inherent in any story whose characters we truly care about?

From p. 69 of A Country Called Home:

“You’re doing fine, Helen. You just do what I tell you, and we’ll be fine.” [Deracotte] stepped out long enough to run a few yards back and call for Manny to build a fire, bring water. By the time he returned, the moan had started again, deep in her chest. She did not blink but kept her eyes on his, and he could not look away. Her fingers wrapped his wrist, and he was surprised by the strength of her grip.

He heard kindling being split, the striking of a match. Helen’s groan became a growl, loud and building to a pitch that was alarmingly similar to the sounds that accompanied their lovemaking. Deracotte leaned over her, as though he might buffer the noise with his chest.

“Hush,” he said. “Manny will hear you.”

The bite came so unexpectedly and sank so deep that he yelped. She had taken him by the flesh of his forearm.

“For God’s sakes, Helen!” He pulled away and saw the crescents pool with blood.

Helen fell back, eyes closed, breathing fast and shallow. Deracotte stepped out to see Manny filling the few pots, balancing them atop the rocks. Deracotte stripped to his waist and began scrubbing his arms, including the bite Helen had given him, which would need to be watched for infection. He backed his way into the tent, hands held high and dripping, never saying a word to Manny, whose eyes seemed filled with a kind of sad fear that reflected Deracotte’s own growing distress.

“Thomas, Thomas, Thomas.” Helen wasn’t looking at him but at a corner where the tent poles came together. “Thomas, Thomas, Thomas.” She brought her head forward, chin to chest, and raised her knees. The sound was no longer a wail but a resonant drone in the back of her throat.

“Are you pushing? Helen? Wait.” He worked his way between her legs, wary, now, of the proximity of her teeth. He saw that the bag of waters had broken, and, to his astonishment, that the baby was crowning, the dark whorl of hair showing itself. It was happening too fast.
Read an excerpt from A Country Called Home, and learn more about the novel at the Knopf website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue