A baker’s dozen (eleven published previously) from the prolific National Book Award–winning Lopez (Arctic Dreams, 1986, etc.), who, here, uses magical flourishes and an intimacy with nature to give many of these tales an unexpected warmth and depth.
Beginning with the first story, “Remembering Orchards,” in which a man in Oregon is brought to remember the stepfather he never had time for in his youth, but whose special talent as a tender of orchards is now abundantly clear, the themes of handwork and being close to the earth are laid bare. “Thomas Loudermilk’s Generosity” echoes and complicates this message, as a much-sought-after, fiercely independent gardener learns just how much respect people have for his gifts when he marries a much younger woman he had hired in her teens and helped put through college. A particular affinity for the Northern Plains works itself out in several pieces, among them “In the Great Bend of the Souris River,” in which a carpenter’s intense search of the North Dakota prairie where he grew up magically reveals a pair of Indians on horseback, who accompany him only long enough for him to regain his bearings. In “The Mappist,” a geographer searches throughout his life for work by a mysterious author whose travel books he revered, then stumbles across maps that lead him to man and his magnum opus, not far from Fargo. Not all stories here have such a shimmering, mystical quality (particularly not the title one), but in a tale like “The Construction of the Rachel,” plot and vision seem nicely in sync: a lawyer loses interest in his former life when his marriage breaks up, then latches on to something sustaining when he constructs a large model of a tall ship from material found along a California beach.
Despite the misfires: a satisfying, subtly illuminating assortment.