Where the Red Fern Grows

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Rivers and Mirrors: World-Building in Nonfiction

1. 

On a sheep farm in the high desert of Oregon, I grew up devouring books about the countryside. I recognized my world of chores, manure and dusty roads in Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows. During my Dungeons & Dragons phase, I wandered the fantastic rural landscapes of The Lord of the Rings and endless Dragonlance paperbacks. Later on it was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley, and the logging community of Wakonda in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. I loved these books for their intoxicating sense of place. Just as people had secret histories, so did mountains, forests and rivers.

During my senior year of high school, like a plucky George Willard, I went looking for the grotesque in my own hometown as a correspondent for my local paper, The Bend Bulletin. Writing about the Wild West settlement of Laidlaw, I unburied the history of violence that predated the ski resorts and golf courses in the region.

Yet even as I plumbed the reservoirs of Central Oregon, I was obsessed with a distant place: Brazil, the country I was adopted from during the twilight of its military dictatorship in 1981. When it came to that story, I had little to go on but old Kodachromes and my parents’ recollections of their long, tedious journey to bring me home. Brazil was an abstraction, a heart-shaped splotch on the globe, an imaginary homeland that I filled with my own desires.

I was 25 when I visited the real Brazil for the first time on a solo backpacking trip to get to know my birth country—perhaps even find my birth mother. It was 2006. I still remember the jolt of the landing gear touching the runway in São Paulo. In that moment, the Brazil of my imagination crumbled.

2. 

By that time in my life, I’d traded journalism for fiction, but I was still entranced by writers who could bring an entire world to life with an elixir of lived experience, research, and unbridled conjuring. The blood-soaked borderlands of Cormac McCarthy. The antebellum Virginia of Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. García Márquez’s Macondo. Richard Price’s New York City. Annie Proulx’s badlands. What I admired wasn’t just the vivid atmosphere but how these writers established a worldview, a governing intelligence that arranged the landscape in service of a story, a theme, a politics of place.

When I first visited my birthplace, the story I wanted to tell myself—that the world wanted to tell about Brazil—was the triumphant tale of a country on the rise, emerging from a dictatorship to democracy. I spent that summer traveling the country by car, by bus, by boat, by plane, by foot. In my naivete, it felt as if Brazil were welcoming me home, but in retrospect I was as anonymous as any other gringo with a guidebook. Yet on an otherwise ordinary night at the bus station in downtown Belo Horizonte, I met my birth mother for the first time. She did welcome me home.

In the months and years that followed, I wrote maudlin fiction about Brazil, trying to render the city where I was born, the countryside where I grew up, trying to bring into focus a worldview of how I got from there to here and back again. Even thinking about that old work makes me cringe. The desperate wanting on the page. The desire to connect with my material, as if forging those links could make up for what was lost to me in real life.

Somewhere on the border between fantasy and fact, my imagination failed me. I needed to put aside the novel and return to my reporter’s notebooks.

3. 

Sad but true: There is only so much room in the English language for stories about non-English speaking countries. Within that shrunken universe, only so much room for Latin America. Even less room for Brazil. Despite being the world’s fifth-largest country by population and area and one of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies, in the Western imagination, it remains more or less an island, roughly the shape of Rio de Janeiro, full of soccer, samba, favelas and festive costumes and cocktails.

When it was announced that Brazil would host the World Cup in 2014—with the Olympics to follow in 2016—I sensed an opportunity to report on my home country in hopes of enlarging that picture in some small way. By the time I started covering World Cup preparations in 2013, the wheels were beginning to come off the wagon in Brazil, which was in the throes of its largest street protests in decades. Millions demonstrated against economic inequality and social injustice, with thousands of Brazilians across the country evicted or relocated in the name of order and progress, even as the government poured billions of dollars into lavish stadiums and vanity projects to rebuild Brazil’s cities in the image of the cosmopolitan first world.

When I visited in the Amazon rain forest in 2014, I saw a region transformed since my first visit eight years earlier. There is a story you can tell about the Amazon that is a tale of progress and sustainable development. This is the world of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a world of optimism and charts that trend toward prosperity. This is the world of Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul, in which all of us, or at least those with the freedoms of capital and travel, are connected through the wonders of globalization.

Depending on what you’re willing to ignore, that story is plain as day in the Amazon. Where once there were tribes relying on the barter system, now there are riverboats going up and down the river with ATM machines on board. Where once it was impossible to find a steady phone connection, now satellites orbit, beaming Instagram and “Pokémon Go” to tweens surrounded by 2 million square miles of rain forest.

In this worldview, the history of the Amazon rain forest is one that moves from savagery to civilization, from darkness to light.

4. 

It’s the kind of story that appeals to venture capitalists and those who believe there is no problem that cannot be solved with an app. It is a story of conquest in which this forest was discovered by Europeans who could only untap its utopian potential with guns, germs and steel.

How can a writer rebuild a world that has been erased by colonists, that has been built on the bodies of the oppressed, designed to mirror the sophistication of European capitals, complete with baroque theaters and bike share kiosks? What right does an outsider have to even try telling a different story?

Though I was born in Brazil, the country will always be foreign to me, and I will always be a foreigner on its streets and rivers. The foreign correspondent is tasked with translating a distant part of the world for the folks back home. Rarely does that mean bringing home good news. Joan Didion’s Salvador exposes the sinister aftereffects of U.S. interference in Latin America. Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder investigates the brutal murder of one of Central America’s leading human rights activists, Bishop Juan Gerardi, bludgeoned to death in “The Crime of the Century” in Guatemala.

Telling the story of the contemporary Amazon rain forest means looking past the utopian rhetoric of presidents, generals, and captains of industry and digging for the dystopian elements they are trying to plaster over. Some kids chase monsters in “Pokémon Go”; others run from monsters in police cruisers. College kids post selfies on Instagram; death squads coordinate their movements on WhatsApp. The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam brings thousands of jobs, billions of dollars and a new skate park to a tiny town on the banks of the Rio Xingu; the kids who congregate at the skate park could never afford a skateboard. They run up and down the half pipe until they are winded, left to look out over the river where they used to swim with dolphins.

5. 

The work of the foreign correspondent, like the work of the foreign multinational company, is extractive. Arrive, discover, return with something of value—and blood on your hands. As much as journalism has changed, if it bleeds, it still leads.

In the last five years, I’ve written tens of thousands of words on Brazil. Very few positive words. Yet a country can be two different countries, a world can be two different worlds, depending on where you look, who you listen to, what you choose to omit. In life and on the page, we choose what to record and what to ignore, what to amplify and what to leave behind.

In Brazil, here is what doesn’t lead: my nieces’ birthday parties. The White Stripes rocking out the Teatro Amazonas. Cold beers piling up on plastic tables as the entire outdoor bar sings along to Zé Ramalho’s cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Paddleboarding on the Rio Negro as sea planes buzz off into the sunset. Grilled tambaqui with a squeeze of lemon and good conversation. A forest so enormous that it reminds you that the human world is nothing, and nothing we build will last.

I blotted so many rays of light from the world I built in my book. The beauty of Brazil is so spectacular that looking directly at it can render you blind to its history of genocide, exploitation, oppression—its history of history repeating itself. The Third Bank of the River is a world built from forgotten scraps. The title is borrowed from the classic short story by João Guimarães Rosa, a fabulist tale of life, loss and death set in a riverside village. On my river, nothing is invented, but everything is chosen. It is the history of the country where I was born and the country where I was raised. In both Americas, our histories are right in front of us, reflecting each other like the river at dawn, when the water is a calm, rippling mirror of the forest.

Image: Flickr/Breno Passos

This Is Not a Defense of the Power of Art

If you’ve never cried while reading a book or watching a movie, this essay isn’t for you. There are only three times I remember out and out weeping in response to either: As a child on the roof of my mother’s house, in my wife’s and my first apartment, and this December, alone at the kitchen table while my wife and our three-month-old daughter slept. Each time I was surprised by the tears, and each time I welcomed them as some cleansing phenomena. I’m not talking about welling up. I put the books in question down and buried my head or stopped the movie so I could go hide in the bathroom. I was knocked off my tracks, interrupted, more than moved.

At their very best, such instances capture part of what T.S. Eliot called the “moment in and out of time.” Most people, in my experience, like to talk about the latter, the way reading transports you or how movies melt away the daily grind. But crying while you read a book or watch a movie is very much in time, an experience that is physically immediate and which necessarily reflects the context of your life during which that moment hits. What’s more, the work in question becomes tied to a time, to a period or even a day of your life that will resonate through the work on any subsequent revisit. For me, there are three art-instances that struck water, one in adolescence, another in my early marriage, and again this last year, which saw the birth of our first child, and the loss of my wife’s first pregnancy. I wish I had a fancier argument to attach to these stories. They’re three modest tales, and all of them embarrass me.

2.
My best friend at the end of grade school was named Skyler, and when we got together any afternoon or weekend, worlds were born. He had a definitive birthmark on his cheek, beautiful eyes, and elfin features. We lived in houses on the opposite side of a small neighborhood that were the exact same build. His yard was bigger. My basement was finished. Competition was mostly friendly, though I once shoved his head into a brick wall and was called into the principal’s office. An accident, of course. I didn’t realize the wall was so close. His blood terrified me.

Originally from Idaho, his parents threatened to move back home from almost the first summer I met Skyler. Threatened me personally, I felt. They brought it up with amazing indiscretion. Sitting at dinner with them, watching their TV, shadowing every step of their lives, I wondered if they realized that discussing the desire to leave so openly was, ahem, rude. They were going to ruin my life, and that just didn’t seem to be much of a factor. When Skyler’s dad almost got a job in Amarillo, Texas, they brought me along with Skyler and his sister for a weekend road-trip to get the lay of the land. “Three kids, huh?” everyone in Texas said. They simply nodded, unbothered to have me on a one-way, seven-hour car ride that almost, to my mind, ruined their lives. We were from Colorado. The endless flat of the horizon unnerved us.

This was the emotional atmosphere in which I read Where the Red Fern Grows the summer after fifth grade. Skyler hounded me to read the book, obsessed with the story’s two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, animals he projected onto his own mutts, Copper and Bear. Every summer, I camped in something like the Oklahoma Ozarks, where the book takes place, and encountered gummy elders who still noodled for catfish, who probably coon-hunted themselves. I saw my own grandfather set trot-lines and listened with reverence to his stories of angling audacity. Read the book? The book read me. Skyler felt the same, and liked to list the ways in which Little Ann explained Copper, or how Old Dan was as loyal as Bear.

When I was close to finishing, I climbed out my second-story window to the roof of my mother’s house. I sometimes read there. Summer evening, a bright sun, warm weather, and I sped through the story’s denouement, the mountain-lion chase that ends Old Dan’s life, and eventually Little Ann’s, too, from grief. I couldn’t believe the dogs died, and maybe my reaction was some sort of Margarét moment, crying in the setting light for my own mortality.

But what happens at the end of the book is not simply a confrontation with untimely death. The narrator must face his sudden aloneness, the fragility of his child’s community. He peers at the doghouse in the moonlight, and notes how “lonely” it looks, how he often “had lain in…bed and listened to the squeaking of the [doghouse] door.” There is a terrible isolation in growing older, when you realize the easiness of being-in-the-world, of being content with others, is going to fade because you will change, they will change, or their parents will move them to Idaho. Idaho, uh, being the universal dumping ground for everyone’s childhood friend. Skyler moved there when I was 12. He was a world-class buddy, and I was the boy left behind. That’s not some easy life lesson, but rather the source of quivering I feel every time I think of the book. It’s a happy thought, now. The book is better because of it.

3.
I wish the second story revolved around some other tome, but this list doesn’t comprise my favorite works. I’d never hold them up as exemplary of my taste. Oh, well. In my third year of marriage I read A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, and I will only read it again when I have a weekend to myself sometime in my 50s, a useful amount of scotch, and enough tissues to survive the experience.

Let me set up the moment in time: my wife and I married young (23), and we both finished grad school during the first and second year of our new life together. Facing our third Christmas, we were in new jobs, I was listless and anxious about being a university office drone, and the way forward was suddenly a little murky. Our syllabi life was now without 16-week outlines. For years, my mom had suggested that I read A Severe Mercy, a true story about a guy who knew C.S. Lewis and whose wife died young. Spoiler: the wife in fact does die young, it’s heartbreaking, and the book is essentially a grief-stricken reconciliation with how so meaningless an event might have more meaning than it first appeared. I know! The entire situation is worryingly emotional, possibly cheap.

But I kept reading because I grew up on C.S. Lewis and attended Oxford for a year, and the book had a vein of Oxford life I’d always wanted and half-experienced, and because I recognized in the love story of Vanauken and his wife, Davy, so much of what I desired. They were absolute romantics, promising not only never to marry if the other died, but to go to sea and die themselves. They were atheists, too, and the story of their love slowly becomes a revelation of their conversion, an almost Wauvian progression of romantic love giving way to ultimate, spiritual love. Stuck in an admissions desk job, swaybacked professionally by my master’s in literature, I vibrated at this literary return to Oxford.

What crept on me, however, was the slow realization of something I thought I knew, but was only now appreciating. My relationship with my wife was the great adventure of adulthood, and needed to take the place of adolescent dreams. The romantic hopes of childhood, of living with an intensity of purpose, were most possible in the very different romance of my marriage. The quotidian as heroic is a little overstating the situation, maybe, but that was about the gist. Commitment, sacrifice, excitement, all features of healthy intimacy. And yet we weren’t (and aren’t) some heart-burned couple canoodling over poetry by the fire. We don’t live every moment planning the next backpacking adventure. She’s a reader, and has become the best reader of my work to date, but at that point in time our great overlap of interest was that we liked each other. Sometimes we went skiing.

Well, Davy dies, and Vanauken writes to Lewis and they discuss the possibility of ghosts during grieving, of there being a special presence for the mourning period that isn’t simply emotion, but is some Christ-like grace that we receive. Christ (you know, your mileage might vary on this) hung around after his death, appearing first to those who loved him. It made sense, they told each other. It hurt beyond bearing, and my own death-pact, that essential vow of marriage, became vivid. Our intention to part only at dying and the great goodness, the great grief all of this might mean fell on my stupid, mid-20s heart. Of course I cried. The best-case scenario was to have a romance that’d haunt me. Or maybe it was to die first.

My wife read the book and did not cry, for the record. She decided she’d pick the next book, and I decided that literary experience will always trump one’s pretensions about literary quality.

4.
At the end of 2016, my wife told me she was pregnant by handing me a note. We still have the note. We have what I wrote in response, my clumsy, bursting enthusiasm. I’m a depressingly simple human at times of great feeling. We have subsequent journal entries, too, which trace my wife’s discovery of miscarriage, and the final goodbyes both of us wrote to a person we wouldn’t get to meet. We both felt tricked, as if a promise had been made and rescinded, and we both feared that maybe something was wrong, that perhaps a second chance might not come around.

Before we knew we were pregnant, a good friend from college texted me and told me she was sure we were. I had a similar premonition before my wife spilled the news, and before her period abstained for long enough to suspect anything with credibility, my wife felt sure the process was underway. We were probably reading physical signs without knowing, sensing and reacting and intuiting. Except my friend. She was in Ethiopia and the text was without precipitant. Nonsense or otherwise, there was an abundance of forward-looking that preempted the event, and once my wife handed me the announcement, our inner lives went even farther. I’d always thought we’d have a daughter first, and we knew the name we hoped to use immediately.

The night she started to bleed, but before we knew what was taking place, we went to dinner and a movie with some friends. The movie was Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Amy Adams’s character learns a language that changes her perception of time and begins to see her daughter’s life and inevitable death before her daughter is born. She looks ahead, quite literally, and mourns her child before her child is even living. The resonance of our pain with the film was almost laughably parallel. I’d pictured a daughter, and felt grief without knowing her. My wife, the same. And, I guess, also Amy Adams? We avoided the film in any form thereafter, despite enjoying it, and my wife will always avoid it, I think. But this December, a year after the whole sad experience, I couldn’t help myself.

I started the movie and skipped right to the heartbreaking moments, to Amy Adams’s character realizing that she has yet to meet the daughter she grieves in flashes. Someone else is welcome to explain my decision to me. I can only say I acted on instinct, and then fell apart. There was no breakthrough, no insight into life’s coming trials or a neat reflection the stages of aging. Instead, a memorial played across the screen for someone I didn’t get to bury. Our three-month-old daughter, conceived quickly after the miscarriage, was in the other room. Not some daughter we’d imagined, but one who we couldn’t, one too specific to grok with even prophetic foresight. Sobbing, I feared waking the baby, felt immense gratitude that she was born, and turned off the screen.

5.
Art has the power to warp and relieve daily life, but I also believe that art isn’t reducible to a few therapeutic instances, no matter how useful the unloosening. A good poem isn’t good because it was read many times at many funerals. That simply means a poem attended some ceremonies. Art’s value, if we’re wise, will never be commensurate with its utility.

So where does that leave my above emoting? While fiction and movies offer pleasurable reprieves, I sometimes get the same kind of jolt from a good airline magazine, or lunch. People cry at commercials all the time. As such, a book’s use in my life says only so much about whether it is in fact an interesting art project or even whether it’d be a welcome addition to your life. But as a reader, I’m fundamentally left not with a bunch of premises, but with several anecdotes about when a story anticipated my epiphanies, reflected my numb-nuttery, or broadened my sense of wonder. Every now and then, we should try and let them speak for themselves.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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