In each of these challenging stories, Wortman-Wunder presents nature not as a static specimen but a dynamic presence that interacts with, and often unsettles, human relationships.
A quick flip through this debut collection will tell you that nature is a clear theme for the author. Her characters have “crawled into town from the riverbed” covered in “tar…and gravel, and river mud,” stuffed their bodies into bears’ hibernaculum during the dead of winter, and spent their days burning oakbrush to try to revive suffering ecosystems. But while skimming these stories might convey the “lazy, late summer” tunes of song sparrows and the “damp and algae and mud” smell of life alongside a creek, and would certainly demonstrate the author's poetic gusto, such a cursory glance would only tell half the story. Per the titular warning, this is not a book of comfort. While the mysteries of science and beauty of nature consume her characters, the author is clearly here to explore the messiness of human emotions and the ways people long for, envy, and challenge one another amid these natural environments. "Otters," for example, considers Cynthia’s resentment toward her husband, Billy, who has moved with her to a trailer along the Dolores River. As Billy grows to appreciate “homesteading in rafting country” and takes pleasure in his wife’s fieldwork, Cynthia sleeps late and yearns for a more civilized life. In "The Endangered Fish of the Colorado River," a marine biologist traces the evolution of her bond with her deceased son. As she reflects on the endangered fish she studied during his lifetime, each species serves as a milestone of sorts in their rocky relationship. Not all protagonists are researchers. In the title story, a nurse named Annie tends to a homeless woman who has thrown herself off a freight train. Hungry for details about the woman’s life “of freedom,” Annie tries to get close to the stranger while eschewing her co-workers’ focus on donation drives and social work brochures. Instead of rehashing the trope of man versus nature or romanticizing lives on the margins, Wortman-Wunder offers a fresh take on the murkiness of the connection between humanity, society, and the natural world.
An honest look at the complexity of human emotion and the influence the natural world can have in everyday lives.