In Cameron’s debut novel, a motley group of writers uses storytelling to understand the changes in its isolated desert community.
A big-city engineer, Brian, takes a job with the U.S. Forest Service in rural Oregon. He has high hopes for his relationship with the range manager, Gordon, but he rejects Gordon’s advice to settle his family in the “respectable” town of Blighs Well. Instead, Brian rents a house out in the country, on the other side of Shortwater, a ghost town. Gordon warns that the town will be a “dangerous influence” on Brian’s wife, Honey, and his children. He doesn’t tell Brian that he played an insidious role in Shortwater’s downfall and that he has catastrophic plans for the entire region. The only people who know about Gordon’s past misdeeds are a ragtag group of locals who gather at Peewee’s Mercantile, a run-down general store in Shortwater. This group is working on various writing projects that they began at a long-ago adult education class. As Honey gets to know this group of outcasts, she begins to chafe against the dynamics of her marriage. Meanwhile, her new friends are threatened by a mining project that could ruin the area’s delicate ecosystem. Cameron’s knack for imagery (snowflakes “big as looper moths twirl lazily to earth”) highlights her strong connection to the Oregon landscape. She also uses humor to her advantage, poking gentle fun at planned communities and their rules, as when one character describes the hand-woven ponchos that members of a commune had to wear, even in winter, when the “fringe, front and back, starts to pick up snowballs.” However, the author tries to pack too many images, jokes and plots into a relatively slender book. Her use of very long sentences and her choice to use one of the tale tellers as an omniscient narrator may sometimes cause readers to get lost.
A charming backcountry yarn with quirky characters that could have used a bit more narrative room to breathe.