Book Review: Train Dreams and Crow Blue

All fiction is mystery.  Any book review will tell you.

I just finished reading two Reflective bits of fiction – Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue.

Full confession: I’m a plot guy. Mysteries, horrors, and who-dunnits are my normal reads. But you read something fine―something like Train Dreams or Crow Blue―and you develop an appreciation for how all good books are mysteries, and how some mysteries can be very very small.  Perhaps they don’t turn on life and death issues, require anyone to save the world or solve the crime before getting killed. But they are still mysteries that keep you wondering. Any good book does that.

Denis Johnson (Tree of Smoke, Jesus’ Son) recaptures the American art form that Poe called the “short form narrative” in his 116 page novella. It’s a book you can read in an afternoon. Yet it’s an epic, chronicling Robert Grainier’s struggle to survive early 20th Century Idaho. As a young man, Grainier works for good wages on the railroad and logging, until those jobs eventually twist his body and robs it of its strength. He takes a wife and has a daughter, only to lose them to a devastating wildfire. He lives a hermit’s existence on a small plot of land, scrounging for wages wherever he can find them, and communing with what might be a true she-wolf. Half woman, half beast, and perhaps the reincarnation of his daughter.

This book is small, and yet the breadth of the great outdoors themselves, covering Grainier’s lifetime on an acre patch of territory, from which he rarely ventures, except for occasional visits to town. Never to another country or another state, all the way up to his death in the 1960’s.

Like so many great westerns, Train Dreams depicts the smallness of humanity in the vast expanse of untarnished natures and years gone by. Westerns prefer their heroes small, touchable, and humane. Grainier’s story is the story of insignificant survival and total awareness. Life is made up of episodes that we cling to for understanding. Train Dreams is wise, a very pleasant read, and always keeps you guessing where it’s going, and what Robert’s life will be.

In Crow Blue (translated from the original Portuguese by Alison Entrekin), Adriana Lisboa paints a very similar story.  Thirteen year old Vanja lives with her mother in Brazil. When her mother falls ill, she arranges for Vanja to leave her birth country and go live with the mother’s former lover, Fernando, in Colorado. Although not the girl’s father, Fernando takes her in and helps in her search for her biological father, who may or may not be living in Arizona.

That’s the plot. But the story is so much deeper. What does Vanja make of this land called Colorado with its snow and strange holidays, and how much does she miss and wish to return to Brazil? What is the story between Fernando and Vanja’s mother that makes him so suitable an adoptive father? And what about Fernando’s past does not allow him to return to Brazil, even as he ages and approaches death?

Again, it’s a large swath of time and territory, and yet the drama unfolds as Vanja grows and matures, growing more and more inquisitive while finding fewer and fewer answers.

These are sweet books. Nice to read on a lazy summer day, when time goes still and days stretch long. Enjoy them, and see if when you finish reading, you’re not reflecting on the mysteries of being alive, so small in size, and so much a part of something bigger.


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