- The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness by Julie Riddle
In The Solace of Stones Julie Riddle takes her readers on several journeys. One is geographical—from Tucson, Arizona, to Butte, Montana, to a homestead near Troy, Montana, to college in Spokane, a teaching job in Japan, and back to Montana and Spokane. Alongside she offers a journey through ptsd from an early sexual assault to diagnosis and recovery. In early sections Riddle riffs on the book that started her parents' journey north from Tucson, How to Live in the Woods on Pennies a Day, but ultimately as that book fails her family, Riddle abandons it as a structural element in favor of more traditional autobiographical forms. Such variation suggests that the many threads will be woven into a coherent fabric; instead the narrative makes several sharp discursive turns, abandoning many of the strands that Riddle pursued early on. Instead of the dominant narrative arc of suffering to partial healing she relies upon, I had hoped that the author would pull together some of the book's most arresting scenes, offering more reflection, especially on the promises and failures of places as sites of healing.
Its setting, northwestern Montana, a landscape familiar to readers of Rick Bass, is also the impetus for nonfiction by Joshua Dolezal (Down from the Mountaintop, 2014) and fiction by Smith Henderson (Fourth of July Creek, 2014) and Richard Fifield (The Flood Girls, 2016). Northwestern Montana has been represented by a dozen or more books in a relatively short span of time. The Cabinet Mountains and the town of Troy and environs have proven to be a rich setting and topic for literature. And yet Riddle's bibliography includes none of the books, essays, or stories by any of these writers, all publishing before 2015. In interviews, Riddle has [End Page 116] discussed the influence of writers such as Mary Clearman Blew and Judy Blunt, but their work can't be found in the bibliography. Anxiety of influence or something else at work?
At times The Solace of Stones seems unselfconscious pastoral, at others, failed pastoral. While the green world helps young Julie avert her attention from the dark secret of sexual abuse, more often it offers a measure of salvation for her father, at the expense of her mother's and her own happiness. The Solace of Stones has been marketed as a place-based memoir, but as it turns into a trauma and recovery narrative, we see that this trauma takes one out of place and out of time. While we have myriad examples of place-based trauma, certainly from many Indigenous writers, Riddle represents trauma as an internal haunting, untethered from place. Rather, the ptsd ramps up after puberty and Riddle represents its devastating effects as temporal. When the memoir turns toward an articulation of the lasting and debilitating effects of early childhood abuse, we lose meaningful connection to the outback West. The stones of the title evoke the home creek and a time when it offered a magical, intimate connection to place, but the stones from Lake Creek can provide only a modicum of comfort. In many ways, at its best, The Solace of Stones reveals the inadequacy of myths of salvific nature and the comfort of home. Riddle's memoir shows how alone one can be within a family and on one's home ground.
The most interesting strands for me explore Julie's relationship with her father and the roles he plays. The book opens with a moment that reveals Julie's faith that her father is absolutely competent. With her thumb swollen and throbbing from an accident, eleven-year-old Julie accepts her father's cure. He takes her to his gunsmith's workshop in the basement and drills a hole in her fingernail, releasing trapped blood, and the pain. Never afraid during this operation, she adds: "My father could fix anything" (3). While she continues: "But I didn't know then—and neither did he—that there were parts...