MARCHLANDS by Karla Kuban


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A polished but unpersuasive first novel about a teenager coming to grips with her family and her pregnancy. Sophie Behr’s narrative of 16 crucial months in her young life features spare, elegantly crafted prose and improbably knowing insights. The story begins in April of Sophie’s tenth-grade year: Her brother and cousin are fighting in Vietnam, and other topical references pinpoint the time as the mid-1960s. But life on a Wyoming sheep ranch moves to eternal seasonal rhythms, and Sophie and her mother are locked in the ageless parent-child battle for control. Willy Chastain Behr converted to fundamentalist Christianity several years back, long after Sophie’s father abandoned her, but she’s still mentally unstable and drinking hard. The supporting cast includes Demetrio, the sheepherder who impregnated Sophie; PiratÇ, a sadistic ranch hand; Edwina, a rebellious transplant from Detroit whose friendship with Sophie strikes the book’s one psychologically truthful note; and, eventually, Sophie’s wandering father, who pauses long enough in Colorado for his daughter to visit and learn the shocking secret that drove him from Willy. Like the other acts of violence here (several directed against helpless animals), this revelation attempts to extort an emotional response from the reader that the characters have not succeeded in eliciting. The climactic events--Willy’s descent into catatonia, Demetrio’s departure because Sophie can’t say she loves him--also seem like arbitrary developments imposed by the author rather than natural outgrowths of the material. Though a recent interview mentions her real-life experiences on a sheep ranch, the overly studied, airless quality of Marchlands makes it a prime example of Writing School Lit. Kuban, a recent Pushcart-winner, provides some lovely descriptions of the western landscape; it’s too bad her characters aren’t equally vivid.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-83165-1
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1998