Rick Bass was brought up in Houston, Texas and, for about a
decade after leaving college, worked as a gas and oil geologist
in Jackson, Mississippi (where he started writing short stories
in his lunch breaks) before moving to the Yaak Valley in the
northern Rockies, near the Idaho-Montana-Canada border in 1987
with his wife, Elizabeth Hughes, who has illustrated some of his
more than 20 books. All three locations play a part in
this collection of ten short stories which share two predominant themes - humanity's gluttony
for nature, and teenagers finding their way into adulthood.
In the opening story, "Pagans", three teenagers play dangerous games in a polluted river near Houston; in "Goats", two young boys intent on being farmers in the suburbs of Houston, try their hand at cattle-rearing in a story that could almost verge on slapstick if it wasn't so poignantly sad; and in "Titans" a boy recollects a vacation spent on the Alabama coast (see sidebar). Bass can find beauty anywhere, even in the shipping lanes of Houston, but the most powerful stories are set where his heart obviously is, in the Yaak Valley (see sidebar). We see the region through the eyes of young and old - from the inexperienced young woman out hunting "Her First Elk" in an effort to reconnect with her dead father, to the kindly, hardened old men who help her; to the children of a fundamentalist family who meet the same woman many years later as she struggles to maintain her deep-woods lifestyle in the face of chronic illness.
Three stories stand out in particular: "The Canoeists", a 4-page story in which a couple canoe lazily down a river in a day that seems to last forever before returning to their home in the big city, having taken their fill of nature, without taking anything away with them but their memories. The title story, "The Lives of Rocks", in which a geologist, living in the forest and weakened by cancer treatments, comes to rely on the help and company of two children from a rigidly fundamentalist family who are happy to help until she teaches them that the earth is millions of years old; and "Fiber" in which a logger muses on his job in the Yaak Valley before turning on the reader with a direct plea to help protect the area - in a few swift words changing the reader from casual observer to participant.
Without exception, these are graceful, thoughtful, compassionate and powerful stories, many of which have the staying power to be recalled for many years to come.
This review was originally published in January 2007, and has been updated for the October 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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