- A Country Called Home
In her two memoirs and two novels, Kim Barnes has clearly declared Idaho's lower Clearwater River canyon country as her home. A native of the region and a writer endowed with strong lyrical gifts, she invariably gets the local details of birds and plants, of the scents of the seasons, right. You always hear and smell the river in A Country Called Home, her second novel, which memorably questions how and for whom this same "country" can be "home." The plot re-inscribes one of western American literature's oldest and most enduring stories: the price Easterners pay when they endeavor to go native in the rural Intermountain West. The novel also reveals the grim realities that are part of this particular canyon country, as its harsh conditions and intermittent, ferocious flooding severely reduce the options of some characters. In our favorite nineteenth-century gambling metaphor, they've been dealt a bad hand.
In that familiar story, young New Englanders move to the West to live out their Thoreauvian ideal of life "close to nature." Tom and Helen Delacotte don't know what they're in for. The epigraph in part 1—John Gardner's statement, "The fall from grace is endless"—defines, variously, the fates of husband, wife, and hired hand, Manny, in their shifting triangle. Tom, a young doctor from a poor family, brings his bride, the rebellious youngest daughter of a wealthy family, to "Omega," their term for the river's U-bend at the abandoned Bateman place, where they live in a tent after their arrival in 1960. Tom, an expert fly fisherman, fishes well and that's about all; pregnant Helen, increasingly lonely and unhappy and desperate, eventually meets a disastrous end, a few months after their daughter Elise's birth at the ironically named "Home Beach." (A twin son dies within minutes of birth.) Endless fall indeed.
Barnes's novel spans seventeen years (1960–1977). The prologue, a crisis scene for Elise, now a very pregnant teenager, occurs in the novel's present (1977), around which the plot unravels. Barnes eventually rewrites the prologue toward the end of the book right before the plot crescendos to a climax involving the four main characters. In this uncompromising country, Manny, who was orphaned as a child, proves one of the handiest, most resilient, and least damaged men. The clerks of Fife, the nearest town, come across as friendly, gossipy, and understanding. The old pharmacist, "Dr. K," breathes new life into an old western prop, the man (or woman) with a heart of gold. [End Page 96]
Yet Fife also produces Pentecostal Christians, those who belong to the Pilgrim Holiness Lighthouse church, above all the aptly named "Maggys" who drive Elise, in search of family, to the edge of anorexic starvation and mental illness. Those familiar with Barnes's own painful brush with backwoods Christian fundamentalism in In the Wilderness (1996) will recognize the accurate portraiture. Fife also contains the Clearwater Hospital Foundation, the mental hospital where Lucas Jainchill, an abused boy, ends up meeting Elise. Jainchill's story of chronic and severe bodily punishment at the hands of a truly sadistic father proves much darker than Manny's earlier tale of abandonment. This chilling perversion of fatherhood suggests that for every Dr. K, there are several like Lucas's father living on the edges of other Fifes. In such a spot, as Lucas advises three younger teenage boys, "it sometimes seemed to Lucas that every man's life was defined by violence done and received" (248).
A Country Called Home closes, though, with the young couple (Elise and Lucas) having a chance at love and a normal life. That chance derives in large part from their being insiders, at home in their river canyon. Both emerge from wrecked marriages, however, and the reader quits Barnes's epilogue with the sense that the young couple faces uphill battles, that stable, warm fathers are in short supply, and that only father surrogates (Dr. K, Manny) or resilient town clerks facilitate arrival...