three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
By: 
Karen Fisher
user_rating: 
0

A-SuddenCountryIn 1847, Fisher’s ancestor, 11-year-old Emma Ruth Ross, leaves Iowa and joins the Oregon migration with her resentful mother, Lucy Mitchell, a remarried widow and mother of four. Lucy’s story converges with that of bereaved James McLaren, a former fur trader for the Hudson Bay Company who has lost his wife to another man and his half-breed children to smallpox. In alternating chapters, Fisher follows both their tales. After an unlikely encounter, Lucy convinces her overbearing husband to hire James to lead their wagon train to the new territory. As they leave civilization behind, their intimate connection changes them both. But while it saves James from grief, it nearly tears apart Lucy’s family.
Random House. 384 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1400063221

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Each day the murderous landscape spools mercilessly ahead of the emigrants, and Fisher’s depiction of a familiar-seeming journey that is not adventurous, as myth would have it, but a daily exercise in folly and survival, is astonishing. A Sudden Country requires a patient reader, but the spell it casts is transformative and rare." Karen Karbo

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Fisher’s rendering of the landscape and her characters’ reaction to it—often a sense of wonderment—is highly atmospheric and gracefully executed. . . . But Fisher’s inflection—the clear-eyed skepticism of many characters, their moral as well as physical quests—is what makes the book." Art Winslow

Orlando Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Readers will have their own love affair with Fisher’s spare and candid prose, which makes events small and large intensely human. . . . In Fisher’s hands, the West becomes a Darwinian land of magnificent beauty and imminent peril as vast and unknown as the open sea." Susan Lynne Harkins

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Fisher’s debut is not as good as Charles Frazier’s Civil War tale [Cold Mountain], but it is a worthy and mesmerizing cousin. . . . The author is already tougher than Larry McMurtry, whose yarns are cozier about the ways of men." Karen R. Long

People Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[The] opening image of a former fur trader trudging through the snow as his daughter dies of smallpox captures both the brutality and the rough-hewn tenderness of all that follows. . . . The book is less successful at sustaining the love affair between the widowed James and Lucy, a refined woman dragged west by her second husband, which carries the story to a wobbly conclusion." Lee Aitken

Baltimore Sun 2.5 of 5 Stars
"A Sudden Country . . . is many wonderful things: a stirring appreciation of the Western landscape, a dramatic account of a wagon-train trip from Iowa to Oregon in 1847, and a sensitive exploration of American Indians and whites living side-by-side in that pioneer period. But because Fisher’s depiction of the two main characters rings false, the novel is ultimately not successful." Clare McHugh

Critical Summary

Love, loss, sacrifice, adventure, tragedy, redemption—what more could readers want? Fisher’s debut novel successfully captures the spirit, unexpected hardships, and high costs of the naïve pioneers who trekked west. Drawing on the diary of her Oregon ancestor, Fisher paints a merciless frontier filled with hostile Indians, traders, soldiers, and would-be settlers while appreciating the magnificent beauty of the Western landscape. All agreed with Entertainment Weekly that the "heartbreaking first chapter alone is worth any number of lesser novels," but the story stalls toward the end. A few critics also laughed at the bodice-ripper affair between Lucy and James. But Fisher’s graceful, poetic prose stands in a class all its own.