Review: Narrow River, Wide Sky by Jenny Forrester

Reviewed by Melissa Oliveira

cover with big cloudy skyOne of the more useful tips I’ve received about writing memoir is this: when the material is hot, try to write cool. I thought of this often while I was reading Jenny Forrester’s raw debut memoir, Narrow River, Wide Sky (Hawthorne Books, May 2017), which chronicles the author’s poor, rural southwestern Colorado childhood and coming-of-age.

The events described in this book are indeed hot to the touch — often painfully so — but Forrester renders them in cool, spare prose. While potential readers should be aware that Forrester’s memoir portrays subjects of abuse and poverty in unflinching detail, readers willing to follow Forrester into her often brutal young life are rewarded with an important and timely story about lives formed and sometimes limited by a beautiful, fierce, and parched rural landscape.

Early in the book, Forrester provides a snapshot of her family on the backdrop of the almost Edenic Vail Valley. The scenes describe an undercurrent of turmoil and cruelty, often centered around the actions of her father, a man with an inflated sense of self and little regard for government, “liberal pansies,” or even the comfort of his two small children. In one memorable scene, Forrester wakes to find that her baby chicks have been destroyed by magpies. She seeks her father out for comfort but instead, Forrester writes, “Dad got up and grabbed his gun. He shot magpies all morning… I burst away from my fear to tell the magpies to hide, but when I got to the window just before I could send a warning to them, they fell from the branches of the trees we played in.” When her father takes out a loan for “the all-time best construction business ever that didn’t work out,” the family loses their home and moves into a trailer; not long after, her parents divorce. Mom and the two children head out of the Vail Valley and into the rest of Colorado, living for a time in their Dodge van.

They eventually land in Mancos, a town of about a half of a square mile bordered by canyons and deserts, parklands and mountains, reservations and ranches. It is a strikingly beautiful setting to be sure, but one that Forrester’s family is ill at ease in, where landlords refuse to rent to a divorced woman with children and where Forrester and her brother feel like perennial newcomers. Their new home is a rented single-wide trailer resting in a hundred-year flood plain with mountains looming overhead. If it sounds a bit tenuous, it is; Forrester writes, “The railroad had left that small town like it had many western towns when the mines were closed and the old trees were cut down, for the most part. It was temporary, we thought.” So Forrester must learn to survive in this place whose tough and unsparing pioneer past often feels very present, and where tension runs like a buried power line between women and men, Native tribes and ranchers, Mormons and Christians, and newcomers and those who have lived there for generations.

One of the central questions is whether the narrator will be able to define herself in a positive way even though forces around her, ranging from abusive boyfriends to poverty to nasty friends to the culture of Mancos itself, work to make her a small, easily controlled version of herself. This dynamic comes poignantly into focus with the narrator’s embattled mother, whose hissing criticism of her daughter’s weight, emotional sensitivity, and outspokenness give her character real solidity; this relationship’s problem and resolution provide a spine for the second half of the book. It’s an especially nuanced portrayal, as the mother’s toughness is something that both helps her survive in this place even while it erodes the narrator’s self-confidence and puts her own ability to have a life away from Mancos at risk.

This kind of careful treatment of mother-daughter relationships are too rare, and I appreciated reading it here. The mother feels so fully rendered I sometimes hoped for that level of reflection on the narrator’s own actions. A few later sections, for example, deal with periods of drug abuse and fraught adult relationships, but these scenes feel oddly rushed or episodic in contrast to the fully imagined earlier scenes in the book.

That said, the beauty of this memoir is that the story doesn’t end with escape; Forrester stretches beyond this, striving for reconciliation with the rough and beautiful things that formed her and even with clarity itself. As someone who called the state home for over a decade, I delighted in Forrester’s attention to this particular Colorado: one which, overshadowed by the state’s well-known cities and ski resorts and beyond the Great Divide, one might too easily miss.

 

Melissa OliveiraMelissa Oliveira’s essays and poems have appeared in AGNI, Kindred, BOAAT Journal, Harpur Palate, and others. Her essay “Analog” is listed as a Notable essay in The Best American Essays 2016 and her reviews have also appeared in The Review Review and PANK. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

 

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