A highly impressionistic memoir/novel offers a fictionalized history of the author’s family and their northern California homeland.
Haake (stories: The Height and Depth of Everything, 2001, etc.) sets out to narrate actual events in a fictional mode—in this case, the story of how her family settled in a part of northern California that was utterly transformed over the course of the 20th century by the construction of a series of hydroelectric dams. The unnamed narrator, a creative writing instructor, moves elliptically back and forth among personal recollections and family legends as she describes how her grandparents met in Kennett, California, an old mining town that was later submerged beneath the waters that were blocked by one of the many dams. She recalls her friend Patty, the daughter of an engineer, and how she was blinded in an accident on one of her father’s construction sites. Patty’s father was heartbroken by the accident and took to booze. Another childhood friend, Miranda, was gang-raped at age nine. One of the narrator’s uncles joined the Peace Corps, another killed himself. The narrator grew up, fell in love, and had two sons. None of this, however, is told in any straightforward way, and the real story seems to be the narrator/author’s inability to find a story in these disparate elements of life and family history: “If you take the idea of a story and spin it off the tips of your fingers,” she asks, “what would it be like, I wonder: the blueprint of a dam? a river? the arc of your young son’s first handspring, when he turns into a teen?” The piece becomes a kind of collage in the end—sometimes beautiful, sometimes moving, but rarely coherent and never very well focused.
A tortured story too self-contained to express itself: many rich and vivid elements that somehow add up to less than the sum of their parts.