by Rick bass
Ballantine Books, $10.00
Platte River, a collection of novellas by Montana author Rick Bass, excels at setting a mood of precarious innocence and using the natural environment to enhance the characters and plots.
Depression, strength and the natural world are just a few of the themes the novellas explore.
"Mahatma Joe," the first novella in the collection, is the story of an evangelist trying to do one last good work, sending food to people in Africa. He plants a garden, helped first by his wife, and after her death, by a drifter, Leena.
Leena, who makes her own tools with bones she finds in a fields, joins Joe in his planting even though she does not understand why the garden is important.
The tactile experience of planting the garden becomes all-encompassing for Leena, as she pushes herself physically. The feel of the plants as they grow taller, the mud from the garden when she waters the crops and the response of the plants to her touch are the focus of Leena's existence.
Seasons of the year are marked by the return of the chinook and other natural signs.
The other two novellas, "Field Events" and "Platte River," have extremely strong men as their characters. Some of "Bass' characters interact so closely with the landscape that they sometimes seem to be a dynamic part of the scenery instead of separate entities.
For instance, A.C., a character in the second section of the book, "Field Events," brings to mind a gigantic oak tree or a gentle bear. He is immensely strong (he picks up cows and spins around with them on his shoulders) and acutely aware of his surroundings, even imagining the earth is shaking when he kicks it.
A.C. trains to throw the discus with two brothers who see him swimming in the river one day, pulling a canoe. They are haunted by his image and go to find him. Eventually, A.C. ends up marrying Lory, the sister of the two other brothers, after he helps alleviate her depression.
Throughout the novella, descriptions of what is happening in the natural world are side by side with actions in the actual world. Dialogue is broken up by a humming-bird coming into the house and the way the sunlight filters though the trees.
"Platte River" is told from the point of view of Harley, a burly ex-football player who lives with an ex-model deep in the woods. She is leaving him, and he goes to visit a buddy from his football days.
He ends up fishing with a bunch of guys, one of whom is contemplating suicide. The feelings of hopelessness are mixed with desperate attempts to hold on to threatened innocence.
Bass' great gift is his ability to set a mood. Whether typifying the "Quiet desperation" Thoreau described or expressing the peace that comes after doing something difficult and doing it well, the characters, natural environment, dialogue and narration work together to give the piece just the right flavor.
Bass' book is a worthwhile read. His background in naturalist nonfiction makes his physical descriptions vivid. His own voice is strong: his calmness seeps into the reader's mind.
Bass is also the author of Winter and The Ninemile Wolves. Platte River is a Ballantine trade paperback, with a cover price of $10.