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A Novel

Written by Karen FisherAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Karen Fisher



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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43049-6
Published by : Random House Random House Group

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On Sale: August 16, 2005
ISBN: 978-1-4159-2541-6
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A vivid and revelatory novel based on actual events of the 1847 Oregon migration, A Sudden Country follows two characters of remarkable complexity and strength in a journey of survival and redemption.

James MacLaren, once a resourceful and ambitious Hudson’s Bay Company trader, has renounced his aspirations for a quiet family life in the Bitterroot wilderness. Yet his life is overturned in the winter of 1846, when his Nez Perce wife deserts him and his children die of smallpox. In the grip of a profound sorrow, MacLaren, whose home once spanned a continent, sets out to find his wife. But an act of secret vengeance changes his course, introducing him to a different wife and mother: Lucy Mitchell, journeying westward with her family.

Lucy, a remarried widow, careful mother, and reluctant emigrant, is drawn at once to the self-possessed MacLaren. Convinced that he is the key to her family’s safe passage, she persuades her husband to employ him. As their hidden stories and obsessions unfold, and pasts and cultures collide, both Lucy and MacLaren must confront the people they have truly been, are, and may become.

Alive with incident and insight, presenting with rare scope and intimacy the complex relations among nineteenth-century traders, immigrants, and Native Americans, A Sudden Country is, above all, a heroic and unforgettable story of love and loss, sacrifice and understanding.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

There Alone

He carried his girl tied to his front, the trapsack on his back, the rifle balanced like a yoke along his shoulders. He walked all day on snowshoes, lost in effort, in steady breathing. The snow drove thick and clotted on his eyebrows, filled his beard. It cluttered his drawing breath.

He’d left the cabin, his valley with its knoll of pines. In the barn, the wind had pulled the uneaten hay and scattered it. He’d left the saddles, stiff with frost. The horses had run off.

There had been a pass to climb. A north wind to bear against. He’d thought to catch the clearing weather, though each night the moon grew smaller.

“Are you there, June?”

He made halt with his back to the wind. Took off his mittens, blew on his hands to thaw them. She stirred in the bundled blanket.

“Let me see.”

Her hands emerged. MacLaren tried to feel them, but his own hands were too cold.

“All right?”

She nodded. She’d cried the night before, a sad thin wail against him in the stinging wind. He kept looking at her fingers, held them balled inside his hand. He squinted at the sky. In all the world now was nothing but the two of them, and white.

At midday, he unlaced his snowshoes, stood them on their tails. Knocked the ice out of his beard, lit a fire, stripped balsam boughs for tea. The snow had quit.

When water boiled, she took the blanket from him, held it tented as he’d shown her, so she could breathe the clearing steam. Her hair was damp, eyes murky gray like his. He watched her fingers curl around coarse wool. He put the steaming pot beside her.

All his life, he’d only gone from one thing to the next, only done what needed doing. His world had all been wood and water, fire, food; it had all been journeys needing made, traplines to set, a world of things to mend and mind with never time enough. But these past few weeks had taught a different kind of seeing. It was as though such endless diligence had muffled him somehow. But here now were the curled edges of his daughter’s ermine scarf, and he could see the hairs stir in the wind, and could see each crack and split in her small lips. He had learned, in these past weeks, the shapes of her knees, her feet, had seen her secret skin. He knew the hard black scabs of scars she would come to live with. If he could command it.

She looked at him.

You are mine, he thought. With his eyes, again, he saved her.

She began to cough. He waited. Fed the fire. The wind came up and sprang the pines, and showered them with snow.

He came off the forest slopes into the river valley in a waning daylight moon. It took less strength to plod along than to see what shelter he could find, what fuel to make a fire. Everything was frozen. And he’d worked like this, in winter, his whole life, but always in the company of men. It was terrible to stop, to see how small she lay without him, waiting for some warmth.

At last, in a cove of pines, he trod the snow and floored the camp in boughs. Made rough shelter. Hacked down limbs and shook them.

He put the meat to boil, and listened to her breathing. He closed his eyes and waited.

One morning after he had made the graves, he’d stood and watched the wind blow down the snow, watched it spill off the laden pines, drift glittering through the blue. Each joint and twig of aspen lined in snow, a faery openwork of black and white. It hardly seemed the world should be so beautiful. He’d walked out past the barn and seen, on all the stumps and posts and rails, a dazzling crest. A herd of elk was feeding off his snowy hay, yarded up content as horses. He’d shot a cow, cut the meat to carry.

He woke to the stink of his blanket burning.

She was curled against him, her hand inside his coat. Until these recent weeks, it was always Lise she’d clung to. He’d never known this kind of flattery, or what it was to be a source of comfort. Now he heard the rattle in her lungs, like glue.

He’d come to think he could refuse to sleep. That a man could stay awake.

When Lispat went, he’d been sleeping. Lispat—Elizabeth—her lanky legs, sly eyes, the cheekbones like her mother’s. She’d raged at the last for scissors, as though she might still cut some figure out of paper. She was ten. He’d had the fever himself by then, and was tired. Go to sleep, he’d said, and left her. Not believing any child of his could die so easily.

He remembered the dry grief cracking out. He’d stood in the doorway’s glare, panic-stripped and heaving.

The ground was hard, he’d had no strength to bury her. He kept her for two days inside, then hauled her onto the ridgepole for fear of wolves. He came to fear his own sleep after that as well, for the losing of his other two. He stayed awake. He talked to them. Tried to cool their faces, keep the chill away. The fire he would keep alive.

Five days of fever turned to chill. Engorgement of the flesh. Suppuration. All his life he’d worked with men who had survived, seen women scarred, seen children blinded or made deaf, but now they owned that horror: variola. Agony, exact and inevasible, every surface real, remembered, the eyes, the tongue, the palms that closed around the cup, the soles on which he walked. His lungs shot through as though he had breathed lye. And no one in a hundred miles to know it.

“Tota?” June would call as he was dozing.

Alexander suffered it ten days. His golden child boy of two. Blessed release. He remembered carrying him outside, how the bright cold hit them. In the snow against the cabin wall, his legs had given out. He remembered sinking with his boy in his arms, waking sometime later. Remembered the horror of the snow, which had fallen while they slept, and lay unmelted in those curling palms.

So he and June, his middle child, were left. Still burning. Each breath disturbed what only begged for peace, each effort broke what little surface might be healing, but he tried to answer when she called. He lay festering in his robes, and moaned and would have been glad for death but for the nightmare fear that she’d be left alone. He would not die and leave her there alone. So he stayed, insensible of days and nights or that the horses had run off, until the sores began to melt together and stiffen into solid sheets like bark that split and stank, and he thought the two of them might live. And, for a silent fortnight, they had.

He pulled June’s head against him. Smelled her hair. Six days, he thought. Six more, if he could do it. Then there would be rest.

The sun rose in a yellow band below the gray. By midday the sky was clearing. He’d reached the plain along the river, now followed that valley north. Blackfeet, Gros Ventres—he saw no villages, no sign, but they were there. He was making for the mission, St. Marie’s. The Jesuits had come out two years before. They had built a crude hall and a palisade against the Blackfeet, who resented them. Their work was with the better tribes: Flathead, Salish. To bring them God and learning. To heal their sick.

“I’ll take you there,” he’d promised, when her lungs began to fail. “They’ll help you. They’ll have something.”

At noon he stopped for longer than he meant to rest, and by dusk he was all but ruined. An ache had lodged in the backs of his legs since the fever, and would turn to knives, but the land here afforded nothing. He kept on, though his eyes were falling shut, his course wavering. The plain was too exposed. At last he made a camp above the river. It took two hours to find some wood and light it.

He boiled the meat by starlight. They heard voices in the silence, swells of laughter, a distant gathering in happy conversation.

“Tota?”

“Hey.”

She lay watching him. The whites of her eyes shone in the faint light.

“Can all people fly? After they be dead?”

He said, “Did your mother teach you that?”

“She said some go in the water.”

“It’s the river you hear,” he said. “The river’s moving under ice, that’s all.”

“Tota.”

He woke. The sky was filled with stars.

“Tota. I’m cold. Tota.”

She fevered, spooned against him, almost touching the last coals.

He reached for the wood behind him, put a few small pieces on.

“Tota, when will Sally come back?”

He closed his eyes, saw their horses homing through the snow—against the dark, he dreamed them flying, spinning through the heavy drifts, the spray of ice, steam roiling from their nostrils. The branches, in their wake, freed and springing.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll go out after thaw and find her.”

None of them had asked about their mother. They hadn’t seen Lise go. He’d told them that first lie and never told another, and wondered since if they’d known more than he. But hadn’t found the strength to ask.

“The fire wants more.”

She said this—as though she’d read his thoughts—in her mother’s tongue, Nez Perce. He answered in the same. “He can’t have more. Not here. Do you know why?”

She nodded.

Sometime next day he saw the sun a failing silver, veiled in ice. The snow began to rise and slide in ribbons. He tied his hat. He tucked his chin against her, bore along the hissing gusts, ice scouring his cheeks; it stung his eyes like sand and melted into tears. He blinked and wiped them, kept the river on his right. It was better on a day like this to move than to keep still.

He’d had to force her to drink tea that morning. Now, helping her to make her water, he saw her wasted thighs, the skin not honey brown, as it had been, but clay. Her breath was worse. She choked. She bleated, trembling.

“Stay with it,” he tried to say. No sound came out. He said, “It’s you and me. The two of us.”

That night he set a twelve-foot pine alight, and slept in falling sparks, and held her fevering close against him.

With dawn came ease, then quiet. The snowflakes warmed and fattened, idled down. They could be close but had no way to tell; the sky was blank, the horizon sifted into nothing by the snow.

And he’d thought she might not make it, but it couldn’t ease those hours. Kneeling at wet coals. The pine’s black skeleton was steaming. Nothing lit. Nothing lit. She wailed. He sat and held her head. He’d have given her his life but only gave the blankets from around his feet when she told him hers were cold.

She said, “I want to stop.”

“We’ll stop. We’ll stop the day.”

His feet were bare. The snow had quit. Chickadees were peeping in the boughs.

“Tell me Elisabetta.”

Elisabetta, the white bear, had danced like a woman if a fiddler played. She’d smiled and swayed her hips. He swallowed. Like ashes in his throat. All the features of his mind seemed gray and flattened. He couldn’t remember what to say.

“A long time ago, when I was young . . .”

“On the stony beaches.”

“On the stony beaches of the north,” he said, “there lived a beautiful white bear. And her name was Elisabetta.”

He tried to tell it, as he had so many times. When her breath went still and the color drained, he put her down and climbed the low rise behind him and started calling out for help. He called and called like a madman, until he was hoarse, until the icy snot ran down his face and all his breath was gone. But of course, no one was in this world to hear him.


From the Hardcover edition.
Karen Fisher|Author Q&A

About Karen Fisher

Karen Fisher - A Sudden Country
Karen Fisher has lived in the West as a teacher, wrangler, farmer, and carpenter. She now lives with her husband and their three children on an island in the Puget Sound.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Karen Fisher

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Bookspan for permission to reprint an
interview with Karen Fisher by Gary Jansen, Senior Editor, Book-of-the-
Month Club®, copyright © 2005 by Bookspan. Reprinted by permission of
Bookspan.

Gary Jansen: First off, I loved your novel so much! It’s beautifully written
and there’s this dreamlike quality to your prose that’s hypnotizing.
So tell us a little about your writing experiences. Who were some of
your influences and what were some of the books that you just loved so
much that they became a part of who you are?

Karen Fisher: I never did a formal writing program or had much contact
with practicing writers—it seemed to me that all the answers were really in
the books I loved. And I do love so many books, and so many authors have
inspired me to believe in myself. But, in terms of Great Influence, I can list a
few books that were powerful enough to make me throw whole drafts away.
Those were (in chronological order): Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian,
Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, the
combined effect of Carol Shields, Louise Erdrich and Alice Munro, and finally
Patrick White’s Voss and Tree of Man.

GJ:You’re a wife and mother of three children.Where did you find the time
to write?

KF: The list above is one tip—this novel took over ten years, and most of it
was written very late at night, by a tired person. So if you find it dreamlike
and hypnotic, that’s probably why. I advise reading it under the same circumstances.

GJ: A Sudden Country is set during the Oregon migration of 1846–1847.Tell
us a little bit about the backstory to your novel and where the idea came
from.

KF:Actually, it started as a kind of challenge from my husband.We went on
lots of horse trips together when we were young, and soon ran out of really
good reading—something that felt appropriate out beside a campfire.We
were sticklers for authenticity—we’d both read a lot of history by then, and
I knew more than many authors about the practical details of an outdoor
life.He fired up an ambition I’d had for a while, to write this kind of book.
Of course, through the years it turned into something much more complex
and ambitious than I’d ever imagined.

GJ:What kind of research did you have to do for your novel?

KF: I read hundreds of overland journals and contemporary book-length
accounts—the closer I could stay to the sources, the better. And for more
years I was reading firsthand accounts of American and Hudson’s Bay Company
trappers and traders, and accounts by early Jesuits. I read everything set
down about the Whitman Massacre and the people and events surrounding
it. Mid-nineteenth-century novels. Sermons, recipes, old books on homemaking,
you name it, except that I tried to stay away as much as possible
from secondary sources. I tried never to write about a location I hadn't seen
firsthand, no matter how much it might have changed.There’s always something
that has defied that change—even if it’s just the quality of light, the
shapes of clouds, the plants along a riverbank.And life was the best research
of all, of course.My children, my animals, my dreams. The best details are
never invented, they’re observed.

GJ: A Sudden Country has received a lot of great reviews. How do these responses
make you feel?

KF: I’d come very close to giving up writing completely.To get published at
all with no publication history, no writing degree, no awards, no connections
to speak of—I’d had so many rejections for so many years that it was just
seeming impossible. I still feel like the longest long shot. (I had to laugh
when I realized how appropriate the cover was, with its dark horse!) But I'm
so grateful now to be in the hands of such wonderful people, people who are
so behind this book.And so touched by everyone I hear who reads and likes
it. Reading and writing has always just been this wonderful, fulfilling, enriching,
private conversation. To have a place in someone else’s life, as so
many writers have had in mine—that’s the ultimate thrill.

GJ: You've lived as a teacher, wrangler, farmer, and carpenter.That’s a pretty
amazing resume (add writer to that now)! How does writing compare to all
of these other professions?

KF: All the others have always made more money! No, really, horses were
my first passion, I loved teaching, farming was a kind of calling—a way to
learn a kind of self-sufficiency I felt we’d lost through generations.And carpentry
is a wonderful skill, but the one least compatible with writing. Good
carpentry is all about anticipation, staying four or five moves ahead of yourself.
Writing is all about reflection, slowing down, thinking back over what’s
done.They’re hard to combine—I'm either an absentminded carpenter or a
tired writer on days when I do both.

GJ: Is there one character in your book that you feel closest to? And if so,
can you describe that relationship?

KF: All these characters can only really be aspects of myself, or I can't write
them truly. My first heroes were all mountain men, and MacLaren was all
about that process you go through, as you mature, of de-romanticizing your
first loves, and then redeeming them (and yourself ) by understanding their
humanity more fully and compassionately. Lucy is all about so many of the
things I discovered as I became a mother. Emma is the incarnation of my
twelve-year-old self, or my impression of that. Mitchell reflects the kind of
passionate dogmatism and social oblivion that I remember so well from my
own twenties—though, of course, he’s older. I could go on.

GJ:
How did the topography of where you grew up and lived affect your
writing?

KF: I always had room, physically, to move.This is a very open book; it takes
place almost entirely outside—not only of rooms, but of conventions—
which is where I generally find myself. Needing to have that kind of space
and independence has made for a pretty do-it-yourself kind of life, so the
road to publication was as rough, believe me, as the journey I was writing
about.

GJ: So when’s the next book coming out?

KF: I don't know, but the kids are finally in school. So the next one should
go faster!

Praise

Praise

“A splendid novel, rendering a past era of America with resonant clarity and unfolding an achingly human story. Fisher also has a distinctively lovely narrative voice. This is a very impressive debut from a writer I will be delighted to follow in the years to come.”
Robert Olen Butler, author of Had a Good Time

“A gorgeous and mesmerizing story of a journey. Fisher provides both the historical context and the perfect detail with equal grace. She deals in big emotions, big adventures, big landscapes, and human-size people. This is a remarkable, remarkable book and I loved every word of it.”
Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club

“On every page of A Sudden Country, Karen Fisher finds a way to astonish– with her extraordinary command of period details, with her profound insights into love-tormented hearts and minds, with her style, which is both lyrical and economical. This is a magnificent debut.”
Larry Watson, author of Orchard and Montana 1948

A Sudden Country will take you to the frontiers of your heart. Let Karen Fisher’s story remind you of what we all know most deeply: Life itself–the will to survive–depends on love.”
Thomas Eidson, author of The Missing



From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. One of America’s foundational myths, the mid-nineteenth-century migration
to Oregon and California, has often been misrepresented or romanticized.
What popular impressions does Fisher strive to correct in her
account of this journey? Does the character of Lucy Mitchell in A Sudden
Country
conform to the typical representation of a pioneer woman? Does
MacLaren fit the popular notion of the “mountain man”? What elements of
Fisher’s re-envisioning most surprised you?

2. How does the Mitchells’ first meeting with MacLaren on the night of
the storm (pp. 48–53) reveal, in miniature, the complex dynamics that will
come to shape the story of this group together?

3. When MacLaren arrives to join the company at last, Lucy asks him
why he came (p. 90), and he responds by asking her the same question. Does
either person seem to understand why each has sought the other? Which of
their unconnected or unconscious responses might offer clues?

4. In the early chapter “A True Wife,” what do we learn about Lucy’s
aesthetics and attitudes that might help explain the isolation she later feels
among the other women of her party? Later, she observes: “And now, if
some believed her strange and some believed her silent, if some believed her
mean with her affections, it was not because she thought she was better
than they were. It was because she did not trust that she was anyone at all”


(pp. 133–134). Do you think this loss of confidence is typical of middle age,
or has Lucy suffered a kind of erasure of identity particular to her?

5. Israel’s decision to take his family west, and Lucy’s reluctance to go,
bring into focus their sharply different attitudes toward the relative benefits
of risk and safety.To what degree is either of them able to see the other’s position
or question his or her own? At what points in the story do Israel and
Lucy appear to bend somewhat toward the other’s view?

6. How do certain inanimate objects, like the teacups, the corset and the
man’s saddle Lucy rides in, all serve to symbolize the transforming power of
this westward journey?

7. Is Israel or MacLaren the more virtuous man, in Lucy’s view? Do you
agree? For which man do you have more sympathy? Is the sympathy of
others earned by virtue, or by something else? If earned by something else,
then what?

8. Do your impressions of Native American culture agree with any of the
varied (and sometimes contradictory) pictures of the individuals and tribes
represented in A Sudden Country? Were you surprised by any of Fisher’s depictions?

9. While among the Pawnee, Lucy asks MacLaren, “With what morality
do they temper their desires?” and accuses the Pawnee of being shameless, of
doing what they please (p. 114).MacLaren has suffered equal disdain in native
societies that see whites as people who “roam without reason, claiming
things that could not be owned” (p. 115). Do the moralities of different cultures
seem purely arbitrary? Why have neither of the moral notions cited
here (the goodness of Victorian restraint, and the goodness of intransient
communities and common ownership) survived in this country to the present
day?

10. A Sudden Country portrays love and marriage in many lights. In Lucy’s
eyes,what is love, and how far should it affect one’s actions? How did her ex-
pectations and experiences of love differ with Luther, Israel, and MacLaren?
What does she conclude at last? Do you believe her? Do you agree?

11. Lise is an elusive character in the novel. How and why does Mac-
Laren’s perception of her, and of the nature of their relationship, change over
the course of his journey?

12. Do you agree with MacLaren’s intuition, that the “borrowed genius”
(p. 302) of the Christian faith has done more than anything to free Europeans
from the bonds of geography and community, and to make them a
“wandering and conquering” people? What evidence comes to mind to support
or refute this idea?

13. Early in A Sudden Country, Laurent warns that all the evils of the world
spring from sorrow.Toward the end, Eliza Spalding maintains that “no good
comes from fear.No morality is governed by it” (p. 343).Her assertion that
we “must live by Him in love, and in the knowledge that our selfish actions
oft prove fatal,” is an attitude that MacLaren has dismissed already as “blind
charity,” though his own worst actions could easily be read as proofs of her
conviction.Why does he come to believe that Laurent’s answer is the right
one? Is it too simple an answer, or brilliant in its simplicity? What, as
MacLaren understands it, is the “solution” to sorrow?

14. Do Americans act in the world today much as they did in 1847, or are
their actions and ambitions significantly different?


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