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Miracle Country, by Kendra Atleework.

March 4, 2020

Miracle Country
Miracle Country, by Kendra Atleework.  Algonquin Books, 2020.

Forthcoming, July 2020

5 stars

A memoir of a woman growing up in the California desert and writing about her own losses and those of the place she knows as her home.

As she describes in Miracle Country, Kendra Atleework grew up in Owens Valley, a narrow strip of desert just east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. She earned her college degree at Scripps  College in Los Angeles and her MFA at the University of Minnesota where Miracle Land was her thesis project.  She has returned to Owens Valley and lives in Bishop, California, near the house where she lived as a child.

Atleework’s memoir is not simply about her personal story.  It is also the story of a place; Owens Valley and how it has been changed in recent centuries.  Deeply felt losses permeate both stories, and in fact the whole book.  Her book provides a deep history of the valley and its inhabitants. High mountains on both sides have created a narrow valley where Atleework and her family had their home.  Only a few inches of rain fall there annually because the Sierra create a barrier to rain storms.  Snowmelt from the mountains, however, initially supplied the valley with water for farming.  Native Americans had worked the land and made it their spiritual home. Then whites entered the valley, massacring and exiling the people living there.  Ranchers and settlers moved into the valley until in 1913 when they, too, lost their homes. The city of Los Angeles built a pipeline 233 miles to supply water for its own growth.  The valley lost another wave of residents and became a place of constant drought.  With increased heat and dryness today, the valley is among the first in the country to face the problems of climate change.  Yet the mountains and desert are not only harsh, they were hold a unique beauty which Atleework captures in her writings.

Coming to Owens basin as young adults, Atleework’s parents loved the land, married and made their home on the side of a mountain.  They were warm, caring people, not quite hippies, but certainly unconventional and willing to take risks.  Fire, drought, and incredible winds were regular dangers. Friends were scattered along the valley’s small towns. The couple loved their three children deeply and encouraged them to explore the valley and mountains.  But taking risks also included taking care.  As their father taught, when climbing, keep three parts of your body in firm contact with the rocks.

When Atleework was sixteen, her mother died from a rare autoimmune condition.  The family were all hit hard by her loss.  The children scattered, and Atleework went to Los Angeles to attend college.  Later she went to Minnesota where she was almost smothered with greenness.  He father and brother remained in Owens Velley and eventually she returned there, pulled by her strong sense of place.

Atleework does a fine job of combining a personal story with the story of a place.  Dealing with loss, she probes the paradoxical ways in which the sparseness of the desert and of life has a beauty of its own.  Her sense of the impact of history and landscape reminded me of Rebecca Solnit’s.  Although she lacks Solnit’s gift with words, she has her own story to tell, and that of her valley.  While the sense of loss repeatedly appears, the book is not grim, but tempered with joy of the land.  In the end it is her home to which she returns.

A wonderful book, especially for those who appreciate deserts.  I gladly recommend it.

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