“HAUNTINGS FROM THE SNAKE RIVER PLAIN
Ghost stories seem most abundant in the backcountry, places already physically haunted by derelict farm machinery and the skeletal remains of residences past. Those structures radiate the energy of what once was, firing the imagination about what may remain. Idaho, a reserve of derelict mining camps and pioneer ghost towns, is the perfect setting for such stories, and a recently published book, Hauntings From the Snake River Plain, collects original stories, essays and poetry about those places in one volume. Released in August by Twin Falls-based The Other Bunch Press, the collection anthologizes 27 Idaho writers such as Elaine Ambrose, Bonnie Dodge and Boise Weekly’s Bill Cope. As with many things hyper-local, objective quality sometimes takes a backseat to regional celebration. Some stories could definitely have used that time-tested editor’s note: show, don’t tell. A story called “Lost Souls of the Lost Cave,” by Andrew W. Black, takes readers through an exploration of a cave, narrated with the verbose and melodramatic literary stylings of Kipling or Poe. “These pages cannot adequately express the horror,” Black writes, as the shadows bear down on his narrator. But there are some strong and concise depictions of place, as well. Patricia Santos Marcantonio uses Idaho’s supply of petroglyphs to craft a creeptacular, ghost-in-the-machine-style story rich with native imagery. Cope explores a family’s supernatural visit to a highway rest stop, while Dodge tells the story of a woman purchasing her dream house, which, of course, was on the market after being the scene of a mysterious death, something any movie-goer can tell you rarely works out. The anthology isn’t big on richly worded depictions of what the censors refer to as “graphic content.” For some horror fans, that might be a disappointment. For others, it is simply a choice to focus on more artful creeping senses of foreboding instead of ham-fisted blood and gore. As with all anthologies, readers will find some stories more to their liking than others. But it may also give some good reason to keep driving past that creepy roadside landmark they always wanted to stop at. —Josh Gross”
If you know anything about me, you know that Alice Hoffman is one on my favorite authors. Now, before you turn your nose and dismiss me like a clerk in a bookstore did recently, let me tell you why.
I stumbled across Hoffman’s books years ago at a writer’s conference. Hoffman wasn’t there, and she wasn’t well known among the audience of genre writers. But an author whose work I admired commented on Hoffman’s books, and when I got home, I looked up Hoffman. I went to the library and read about her in the journals of literary criticism. I read all her published novels. Then I read them again. I took out pen and paper and rewrote some of her paragraphs to get a sense of her rhythm, voice, and style.
When I tried to tell my son the English professor why I liked Hoffman’s work, I could only falter and say, “When I read her books I feel like she is sitting across the kitchen table from me, and that we are drinking coffee and telling each other our truest secrets.” Not that her work was brilliant or sent me to the dictionary, or even avant-garde. Not that her writing was political, or historical or made me want to move to New York City or Massachusetts. But that her writing made me deal with my emotions, and do it honestly.
Wow. I wish someone would say that about my work.
This observation comes today because I just finished Hoffman’s latest novel, The Red Garden. Now, I have read every book Hoffman has published including the books for young adults, and at first this book didn’t speak to me. It is not a novel, but a collection of short stories that act as a novel. And if you read them fast, you miss the message each story contains. There isn’t much of a plot. Some of the characters lack motivation. But if you read them slowly and listen to the voice of the author and try to keep in mind the connection of the characters, you get to the underlying gist of the stories, an eerie sort of longing and contemplation about life and death. A Tree of Life that bears Look-No-Further fruit. I can usually finish a Hoffman book in one sitting. With this book, I had to slow down and let the simple, common, haunting words hit their mark. After reading “The Principles of Devotion,” I had to set the book aside for the rest of the day. It is one of the shorter stories in the book, but did it ever punch me in the gut. A dying sister, a loyal dog, small and unfulfilled wishes. Wow. I was so paralyzed by her words I had to stop reading.
This is not meant as a review of the book. I do not believe in critics’ reviews because each reader brings something different to a book or to a movie. Who’s to say which interpretation or experience is the better? What I’m trying to convey is how this author evoked my emotions. Did the book make me laugh? Yes, a couple of times. Did the book make me cry? Yes, once. Did the book make me feel? Absolutely, all the way to the end.
The same thing happens when I listen to the music of country and pop artist Taylor Swift. If I were fifteen and falling in love for the first time, I might be drawn to Taylor because she has spunk, energy, and charisma. But I’m nearer sixty and I’ll tell you what draws me to Taylor — her talent and ability to tell stories honestly.
I was first drawn to Taylor because I was writing about my 16-year-old protagonist Abbie Buchanan and wanted to capture the raw emotion of a teenager. When I would write about Abbie, I would put on Swift’s music from Fearless and let Abbie’s emotions bubble. In my Hoffman tradition, once I discovered Taylor, I devoured everything she released. For Christmas, I asked for and received her first album, Taylor Swift. I was expecting a so-so album since it contained songs Taylor wrote in her early teens. But these songs are as powerful as those in Speak Now and Fearless. I love Taylor’s songs and find myself waking up with them in my head. Like Hoffman, the stories Taylor tells stir my emotions. They make me remember I’m human, the elements of life–the breathing, the loving, the hating, the messing up, the forgiving and accepting.
And then there is me, inspired by these talented artists who dare to tell it like it is without any apologies, who inspire me to face each new day with enthusiasm and deepened insight.
To that I say, Wow. Absolutely, Wow. And a very gracious Thank You.
Judi Baxter, who owned and operated Judi’s Bookstore in Twin Falls from 1978 to 1992 wrote this review for BookChat. Check it out. Thanks, Judi, for the positive review. Thanks also to the Times-News for letting us reprint the article here.
Three ‘writers with stories to tell’
It is always thrilling to hold a treasured book in my hands – rediscovering a childhood favorite, inhaling the scent of an old, leather-bound tome, perusing glorious pictures from a beloved illustrator or gently opening a much-anticipated title for the first time.
The thrill was certainly there when I received a copy of “Voices From The Snake River Plain,” the collection of essays, short stories and poetry from three talented local writers, Bonnie Dodge, Dixie Thomas Reale and Patricia Santos Marcantonio.
The lawn mowing, leaf raking and sidewalk sweeping went by the wayside as I sat on my deck and immersed myself in their worlds. I laughed, sighed, held my breath for a few moments and even cried while reading of families and friends, journeys and jealousies.
Marcantonio’s “The Hitch,” an engaging short story about a camping trip gone bad, left me giggling and nodding my head in agreement: Been there, done that! Forget the spectacular Stanley Basin scenery, mountain air and sparkling Salmon River; a lost trailer hitch leads to pointed fingers, heated words and thoughts of divorce. But her wise old character, Earl, quickly snaps everything back into focus: “Earl pulled up his welding mask. ‘You folks should have a good time once this is fixed. You can hike the trails, cook over a campfire, fish a bit. See the stars together. That’s the only way to see the stars, with someone you love so you know you aren’t dreaming.'” Beautiful!
In the chapter “Remembrances,” Reale captured my heart with “Mush.” Anyone who grew up having to eat oatmeal-the-texture-of-wallpaper-paste for breakfast every morning will immediately identify with the feisty, stubborn little girl. Her mother said she would eat it. Period. She was determined not to. Period. It became a royal battle of wills and more than a little ingenuity on young Dixie’s part: feeding it to the dog, tossing it out the window, dribbling large spoonfuls around her bowl. Since she didn’t have to eat the slopped part, that maneuver became her answer:
“I decorated the room. The entire bowl was drizzled and splattered one spoonful at a time across the mahogany tabletop, the wall, the bench and onto the floor. There was so much of it that gray puddles ran into one another making small lakes. Once Mama saw the mess she scraped it back into the dish and slung it in front of me. Now it was cold and slimy, had a faint flavor of English wood oil, and smelled a bit like floor polish. ‘You will eat this,’ she said.”
At this point, I was chuckling, but it was nothing compared with the laugher that erupted when I came to her final solution. What a creative little girl!
After reading Dodge’s “Surviving the Storm,” set a few days after the attack on the World Trade Center, I barely moved for many long minutes, reflecting on her words, recalling the overwhelming feelings of those haunting days as our nation sat in stultified silence and pain.
The women debate their plans to attend a bookfest in Boise and a trip to Idaho City for their annual mini-retreat, struggling with their own fears and doubts about leaving home and families so soon. “It’s what they want,” writes Dodge. “They want to terrorize us into inaction. I think we should go.” And so they do.
They spend hours exploring the former mining town, picking wildflowers, spontaneously attending a Catholic Mass, sharing homemade peach cobbler at Trudy’s Diner.
Dodge writes: “Heading for the car, we stop when we see an area of the cemetery marked with weathered boards, each etched with only one word: Unknown. Like rubber bands, we’re snapped back into reality as we think of the many new graves in New York City, some of which will soon be marked: Unknown. We exchange glances and, unembarrassed by our tears, embrace, holding onto each other longer than usual.
“We pass tissues like candy. Our hearts hurt. We have no words, no stories to define our nation’s massive devastation. As we travel the road that will take us back to our families, smiles chase away sadness and the desperate need to be home … Even in this troubled time, when our nation is stunned and nothing much is moving, we are. Because we’re still writers with stories to tell.”
And our lives are richer because these three writers have gathered and shared those stories with us.