Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback
by Rafael de Grenade



Milkweed Editions, 2014. ISBN 978-1-571-31314-0.
Reviewed by Amy Hale Auker
Posted on 07/07/2014
Review of the Month, July 2014

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure

This is a brutal book. This is a beautiful book. Where brutality and beauty come together, we often find a truth that takes us deeper than either. De Grenade's voice in this memoir of her time spent in the Australian Outback is strong and clear, and it brings us that truth.

Stilwater presents us with a few short months of de Grenade's life, months that were both lonely and crowded with characters and experiences. The book opens with this young woman stepping out of a small mail plane onto a remote cattle station among strangers. As the story unfolds, the reader's questions are slowly answered: the why, the how, the where... especially the where. The author's science background, as well as her roots in agriculture and the land, come strongly into play as de Grenade paints the picture of a place that is almost unreal. And yet, she makes it real for us by adding in the economics, the people, the livestock, and the work.

The thing the writer of this book accomplishes better than almost anyone I've ever read is to highlight the intimacy that a human might find with the land if she so desires, even if that place is one she will leave behind. "I was both witness and wilderness, swinging violently between being a sympathetic and not-so-sympathetic participant and observer," she writes.

I began reading out of curiosity. I kept reading because I had no choice. I wanted to be there, too.

My one criticism of this memoir is that at times it is impersonal and perhaps a bit too academic. I wonder if the writer got to know her horses and the terrain better than she got to know the people she worked with daily. I don't fault her a bit for that, but she hides at times behind the lens of observation and we miss some of the humanity.

In her acknowledgments, de Grenade says, "The journey of writing, though much longer than my stint at Stilwater, has itself transformed me."

It is a joy to be present to this brutal, beautiful transformation.


Rafael de Grenade grew up in the foothills of the Santa Maria Mountains, in northern Arizona. She began working for the Cross U Ranch at age thirteen—riding, branding, shoeing horses, and gathering cows. Since then she has traveled to many countries as a land steward and scientist, and her writing has been published widely in literary and scientific journals. Rafael de Grenade divides her time between the southwestern United States and Chile. Read more on the publisher's website.

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