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TeacherLore

A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher

The Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association announced that A Sudden Country by Karen Fish won the 2006 Regional Book Award for Adult Fiction.

The novel is inspired both by the author’s actual life in the West and by what she could learn of her family history:

. . .my husband and I quit our jobs and moved to an Idaho farm. With no money or work to fall back on, driving a trailer full of goats and horses, cats and hens, we arrived on 50 acres and soon had to fix tractors, build barns, dig cellars, grow food. What had we been thinking?

Six years passed. I had a girl, then a boy. Each winter I tried to write. By then I’d ridden country once mapped by Hudson’s Bay fur traders, snowshoed through winters so long and bleak that I’d come to see how color—vermilion or a string of beads—could become currency. Now a mother, I’d wondered how one eloquent trader had endured a winter in which his whole family died of smallpox. I’d stood on old village sites, pondered churches built by rival missionaries, learned to butcher deer and split cordwood from a Nez Perce neighbor. Summer days of hoeing and diapering had taught me things I’d never guessed about poverty. Each month brought some new lesson, and for a writer, the most important one was this: that facts and ideas were not enough to write from. Only by feeling a life could I understand it. Only by living could I feel it.

Then I was given an account handed down by a true ancestor. Emma Mitchell was 11 when she crossed to Oregon in 1847. Desperate toward the journey’s end, her family won permission to winter at the Whitman mission. A month later, the Cayuse massacred the mission’s American men, took the women and children hostage. From my farm I could almost see that place, but never imagined my connection. Or guessed that but for a pair of stolen stockings, I might well not exist.

To take up those dry husks of words and know a woman who once woke from dreams, pressed her lips to an infant’s hair, found her courage, kept a secret; to know a man who had split wood, built barns, lost love—to know these things was to know my new ability to speak for those whose lives had been reduced to names in the backs of Bibles, a saved lock of hair, old pages lit to fire kindling. 

Here’s a book discussion guide.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/09 at 10:51 AM

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