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.