Susan Marsh's debut novel, War Creek, delves into the dynamics of one family's complicated history of abuse, deceit and vindictive secrets. Agnes's older brothers are far too busy for their dad, Clayt, so they recruit her to return home to the War Creek Ranger Station. It is Agnes's responsibility to help their aging father downsize to a smaller house, and this is her first trip home in twenty years. But estrangement is almost too cozy a word to describe Clayt's relationships with his adult children. The closer Agnes gets to the station, the more the resentful memories flood her consciousness, "like a fresh slap." She wants to turn and speed back to her life. But she doesn't.
She resolved to simply have it over with: help him pack his belongings and vacate the ranger station where he had resided for over forty years. Then get out as soon as possible. It wouldn't take a week.
Of course, it takes considerably more time than a week to get the old ranger moving.
Marsh's prose is so beautifully descriptive that the smell of the majestic Ponderosa pines rising above the rocky ravines briefly takes me back to the mountain trail rides of my youth. The Cascade Mountains themselves are protagonists. Agnes is the only daughter with five much older brothers. According to family legend, her eldest brother loses his life in the Vietnam War. Her cantankerous father, Clayt; the bear guy, Hunter; and the dog, Tuck, as well as a small group of secondary characters, round out a memorable cast. All of Marsh's characters are well-developed and individually unique. Agnes' father is an angry and bitter alcoholic. His verbal abuse requires a thick skin. But as days turn into weeks, she begins to see a different side of him. And his rhetoric slowly softens. Her memories of growing up at the ranger station string their way through the novel, and Agnes eventually realizes she actually has some good memories.
Father and daughter explore mountain trails as they help Hunter in his quest to locate the elusive grizzly bear, although she feels that "riding with Clayt was like riding alone." He compliments Agnes's expertise with handling the horses, making camp and her campfire cooking. She reminds him that her outdoor skills exist because he is a good teacher.
Agnes's relationship with Hunter develops at a believable pace. Both are single and well into their thirties, they find unexpected friendship, and then love. It is almost sweet at times, in what is certainly not a sweet novel.
Damaged family relationships thread their way through all events in the novel. The tense pacing keeps the reader involved and anxious to see what will happen next. Forest rangers are kept busy with wildfires, and lost hikers in the mountains. Injuries and even death occur randomly, almost as if reading a newspaper. Retired Clayt is summoned back to ranger duties, assisting younger rangers more than once since he knows the mountains better than anyone.
Reconciliation with her mother is in the realm of expectations, but this is definitely not a predictable novel. Agnes finds peace when she finally realizes the meaning of recurring bear dream. Warning: this is a page turner and the reader may lose sleep, I did. But War Creek is worth it.
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Susan Marsh is a naturalist and award-winning writer in Jackson, Wyoming. She has thirty years' experience as a wild life steward for the U.S. Forest Service. Drawn to the wild from the Pacific Northwest, animals were her primary conduit to places of beauty and mystery. She has degrees in geology and landscape architecture. Visit her website.
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