- Echevarria by Gretchen Skivington
The title of Gretchen Skivington’s fictive epic Echevarria is inspired by a Basque family roadhouse, hotel, and restaurant in Nevada. As her narrative unfolds, a reader can almost taste the homemade wine, inhale the aroma of cooked lamb, and hear the clack of nailed boots on Echevarria’s plank floor.
This challenging but entertaining opus has the weight not of a novel but of an epic, rendered unconventionally through a collection of intriguing and often intertwining short stories. Skivington breaks the book into narrative chunks instead of conventional novel chapters.
A professor at Elko, Nevada’s Great Basin College, Skivington has written an authentic, gritty portrayal of the inhabitants of wryly named Paradise. To the stranger the town is a hellhole. For the displaced who remain, it is a community where they can create themselves anew. The book extends over a century, introducing a population numbering Chinese, Native Americans, Anglos, and Basques. Many pages are devoted to two lovers in an interracial romance, but they are often pushed offstage as other characters flit in and out of the narrative. [End Page 96]
Skivington creates scenes, protagonists, and dialogue that sometimes embrace and sometimes defy traditional fictional techniques. Consider, for example, her ever-shifting points of view. Her similes, occasionally overabundant, are written with flair. She mixes conventional and unconventional punctuation, often omitting quotation marks. Long passages of dialogue challenge the reader to keep up with whatever character is speaking. Nonetheless, the dialogue is authentic, clever, and pithy. The author’s background as an oral historian works in her favor, parts of this gem reading like an oral history. Other parts, especially those capturing the owners and patrons of the ever-evolving Echeverria hotel, read like conventional narrative.
Reminiscent of novelists Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gaddis, Skivington breaks literary rules, and this stylistic tendency puts her in a category outside such conventional Western-lit stylists as Robert Laxalt and Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Readers will either love this rollercoaster on words or bail for more traditionally secure literary footing. She routinely reaches into her literary bag of tricks, employing snippets of real newspaper accounts, characters who are actual living or dead Nevada personages, instructive fables, and even a first-person rant disguised as a scholarly interview.
If all that isn’t enough to challenge the reader, Skivington makes abundant use of foreign words. Some translations are offered on the spot. Others require reader initiative to look terms up or glean meaning from their context. The Basque name “Echevarria” translates to “new house.” At one point I told myself I wasn’t reading this difficult and visionary book, I was rasslin’ it.
Perhaps Skivington’s most compelling literary theme is the story of two lovers barred from marriage by repugnant miscegenation laws.
Bad things happen to good people in Elko County. For every Basque herder who emigrates and acquires a ranch or business, another finds madness, penury, and unintended bachelorhood. For example, a herder spends a lifetime alone with a sheep band and comes to Paradise to ease his damnable loneliness with wine and women. [End Page 97]
Skivington’s Elko County Paradise is inhospitable. The environment freezes feet in winter, and in summer, as one character laments, it is hot as Dante’s Inferno. However, when a stranger such as a celebrity entertainer like Bing Crosby buys a spread and lets his hair (or toupee) down with the locals, exclusion stops and assimilation begins. Crosby is one of several real persons the author employs as characters.
Echeverria is an epic without a traditional hero. As is often true in literature portraying ethnic groups, women are the formidable gender. A stout Basque wife operates the Echevarria business while her husband Pedro secludes himself in the wine cellar with his daily newspaper. It is the wife who takes in the wounded Chinese boy Elias Elí—known as Lee—and sees he is nursed back to health and taught to read. Lee’s love interest is a Basque young woman cast out by her father.