In Which I Read, and Love, a Book About the Great Outdoors


 
I recently finished Steve Edward’s Breaking into the Backcountry. I’d read a few of his short pieces online that were fantastic, and I knew he had a book out. I went to his website to investigate and was slightly dismayed to see that it was a memoir, something I don't read very often. Further, this particular memoir obviously had themes related to the outdoors.  Remember me Given the choice between a hike in the woods or a day in New York City, I am already halfway across the GW Bridge.
But I really liked Edwards' writing, so I bought the book. And I am so grateful I did.

First, there is the prose, which is exquisite. There are lyrical passages full of rich detail—sentences strung together with a seemingly effortless cadence, phrases that are ripe with perfect, often surprising word choice.  I do not always underline passages in books I read. I love books, I share books, I don’t want to deface my books. But sometimes I can’t help it. Sometimes there is such beauty that I find myself marking up the pages.  Descriptions that astonish and delight. Sentences that evoke envy.  An insight I want to contemplate later.  I did it with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruini’s Queen of Dreams, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Christie Hodgen’s Elegies for the Broken Hearted.
I did it with Steve Edwards’ Breaking into the Backcountry.  In an orange pen.  A lot.

In a way, the narrative arc of this book mirrors my experience reading it.  The story begins with the author feeling more than a little fear and trepidation. He is twenty-six. He has recently won a writing contest. The prize includes seven  months as a caretaker of an isolated homestead in  Oregon where the author will perform chores and write.  There will be no electricity. There will be bears. He is understandably unsettled.
(My first thought was to remind myself never to enter a contest with such a prize.)

But Breaking into the Backcountry is more than a description of a beautiful and challenging landscape. It is more than a chronicle of the difficulty adjusting to the isolation, to the long days and weeks alone. It is an achingly personal story, detailing the pain the author both suffered and inflicted during an early divorce, his reactions to the September 11th terrorist attacks which took place while he was at the homestead, and his unflinching quest to conquer his fears, to grow as a person.
Over time, he learns important, transformative lessons the homestead could do nothing else but teach him. He settles into it. He comes to value the solitude, to feel peace there, to see things differently.  And this is how I felt every time I picked up the book--soothed, reflective. I looked forward to reading not just to know what happened next—would a bear attack, would intruders harm the propery or its twenty-six-year-old caretaker, would the author go mad— but because there was a palpable peace that came over me when I read.

There is a sadness looming beneath Edwards' gentle storytelling, and I will admit to tearing up, most notably in a passage about making peace with the hurt he caused his ex-wife, and the epilogue, where I found myself deeply touched by how seven months can change a man. 
If you are looking for some truly beautiful narrative nonfiction, I highly recommend Steve Edwards’ Breaking into the Backcountry.

14 comments:

  1. This sounds pretty cool. More than your usual outdoor adventure story, for certain.

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    1. Wow, Dan. You're quick! (Just between you and me, it's possible I'm still proofing this.)

      Thanks for stopping by. Hope you get a chance to read the book!

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  2. I saw this over on twitter. It's a lovely review.

    Thank you for the recommendation.

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  3. Jennifer, what a great review! I live in the country, but three words in your review gave me the heebie jeebies -- "chores" and "no electricity." Any prize involving either of those things is one I'd likely decline.

    Can't wait to check out his writing!

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    1. Thanks, Wendy! I'm ashamed to say I was lost at "remote."

      And yet, if he hadn't been willing to take the risk, we wouldn't get to read this beautiful book.

      He's a wonderful writer; I know you'll enjoy his work.

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  4. Isn't it great when you are surprised by a book choice? It is much more satisfying than reading a favorite author. The sense of discovery.
    I look forward to reading it.

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    1. Yes! I love being surprised by a book.

      In this case, I was pretty sure I'd love the writing; I didn't expect to be so entralled with the story, or moved by the power of such a place to change a person.

      I hope you enjoy the book!

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  5. I highly recommend Jennifer Zobair's book reviews.

    From the little I know of Steve on Twitter, this doesn't surprise me at all. I'm hopping on over to Amazon now to check out his book.

    And, btw? Less than a week til Zadie Smith's NW. Not like I'm waiting or anything.


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    1. I highly recommend Sarah Hina's comments!

      I have a feeling you'll understand exactly what I am trying to say about this book, Sarah. We'll have to discuss.

      And then? Of course we are discussing NW! Where is Davin??

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  6. Isn't this a writer's dream? Solitude?

    Thank you for this review. It looks like you've blogged about some pretty famous books previously and it's nice that you'd go to the trouble for something less well-known.

    Also, that captcha thing is a bitch.

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    1. Ken, yes, absolutely. But there is solitude and then there is solitude, and I think the latter is not entered into lightly, and I think it is no small thing that this author was willing to go there (literally and figuratively).

      But I take your point. :) Same for the captcha!

      Thanks so much for reading.

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