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Valerie Miner , author of TRAVELING WITH SPIRITS

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“Traveling With Spirits,” by Valerie Miner.

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TRAVELING WITH SPIRITS

By: Valerie Miner.

Publisher: Livingston Press/University of West Alabama, 305 pages, $30.

Review: Miner’s novel is immensely moving, with an intrepid, sympathetic protagonist.

REVIEW: "Traveling With Spirits,” by Valerie Miner

  • Article by: JANE CIABATTARI
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • September 7, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Minneapolis is the jumping-off point for Valerie Miner’s transporting new novel, which follows a young doctor on a distinctive, life-changing journey to work in India. When Monica Murphy arrives in the New Delhi airport after nine hours of travel, she is “thrilled, terrified, dazed … to be so far from home.” Her initial mantra is the best traveler’s advice she’s been given so far: “Prepaid taxi.”

Monica is still grieving the loss of her mother, who died the year before, and is worried about her estranged sister, whose drinking worsened during their mother’s decline. Office politics and frustration with bureaucratic rituals have soured her work in a Minneapolis clinic. She has accepted a job as a doctor in a Catholic mission in Moorty, in the foothills of the Himalayas, with one caveat: Indian immigration is watchful of doctors working there, the clinic’s director tells her, so she must strictly obey regulations against proselytizing.

Monica is sensitive to nuance, and careful not to force the Indians she treats into her own cultural viewpoint (although she does, upon her first taste, call uthapoms “a cross between pizza and latke”). She frequently cautions herself not to be self-absorbed, and bites her tongue when one of her new friends, a Delhi-based philosophy professor named Ashok, calls her naive and questions her motives for coming to India. “What a curious man. Acerbic. Considerate. Gentle. Irascible.”

Monica relishes her work at the clinic, which she finds “more conducive to healing than Lake Clinic. If she needs more than 20 minutes with a patient, she takes it. No insurance forms. No unctuous visits from drug company reps. … No invasive, dysfunctional pseudo-efficient system here.”

The patients and staff are helpful and tolerant of her fragmented Hindi. But this is not the spiritual community she had wished for, she discovers, as tensions surface. The clinic’s doctors are at odds over providing family-planning options to patients and setting up a satellite clinic. A group of young men — right-wing Hindu nationalists — make a threatening visit to the clinic. She reads of a church being firebombed. Ashok advises against a dream trip — the Hindustan Road — she plans with her friend Sudha, a teacher.

Miner, whose eight previous novels often explored the shifting bonds of community, makes it easy to empathize with her intrepid narrator. She also makes it clear that Monica doesn’t always recognize danger when she sees it, which adds an emotional punch to this subtle and immensely moving novel.

Jane Ciabattari is vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle and a regular contributor to NPR.org, the Daily Beast and the Boston Globe, among others.

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