Mark Spragg’s characters are as hard-bitten and bone-weary as the sweeping Wyoming landscapes in which they reside. Even as they inhabit the spirit of the land, one character teeters on the brink of alcoholism while another discovers he has Lou Gehrig’s disease.
All the while, the bucolic rural setting is belied by eighteen-year-old Griff who - as the novel opens - is caring for Einar, her aging grandfather.
There’s a sense of imperviousness and fierce tenacity in Griff. She’s only too willing to help her grandfather when he asks her to check for the new grasses before they pasture the cattle on the Forest Service leases. Soon after, we see her stubbornness when she tells her mother, Jean, that she’s still in love with Paul, her Native American boyfriend, even when she discovers that he’s thinking of applying to study for a year in Uganda.
Jean, with all of her cynicism, booze and cigarettes, has married the town sheriff, Crane Carlson,
but all Crane can think of are the neurologists and clinics where the tests for Lou Gehrig’s have come back conclusive. Unable to communicate with Jean, Crane turns to his ex-wife, Helen, for comfort in these difficult times.
The sadness in Crane’s face is so palpable that it makes Jean want to scream with frustration.
As Spragg’s story slowly unfolds and gradually picks up speed, his Wyoming is as tangible as his characters’ yearning for connection. Einar prepares for his passing, fielding the memories of summer colors and the sense of expanse that once brightened his mind. He’s thankful
that his sister Marin is back. As she laments the recent loss of her partner, Alice,
Marin and Einar are able reconnect, clinging to one another and frightened by something just beyond what they can express.
is a book of fleeting connections. Spragg delicately weaves two other pivotal characters into his story: ten-year-old Kenneth and his stepfather, Barnum McEban, who looks after the boy while both go to work for Griff and Paul, repairing the small defects in the fences that run up through the foothills of their property. There
are many nostalgic scenes of blossoming love between Kenneth and McEban, and Paul and Griff, all indelibly placed in the bourgeoning land of their childhood.
Although there’s an under-developed subplot involving Crane’s discovery of a methamphetamine lab
and a body with its head, shoulders and chest badly burned, the strength of this novel
lies not in the plot but in Spragg’s prose, which strikes with profound images and enduring pictures: the open foothills, the
scattered cows and calves grazing in the cool air, the homestead cottonwoods and a sky that remains free of circumstance, along with unexpected bursts of pastel light.
An unexpected reckoning awaits one character in this land of frustration and sadness, the sense
that she is simply too fragile to exist in this expansive world where the land meets the sky.