Trespassing Across America
By Ken Ilgunas. (Blue Rider Press, 264 pages, $27.)

Anyone who has taken a multiday hike knows the reveries that balancing on alternating feet free the mind to pursue. The endorphins and the routine stimulate us to think big thoughts, but they are mere mind castles if they remain walking dreams only.

Ken Ilgunas hitchhikes to the maw of the planned Keystone AL pipeline in Alberta with the conceit that hiking it to its outfall on the Texas Gulf Coast will prove a game-changing experience.

It is — despite the fact that the pipeline’s fate was settled before his manuscript is published — but the change is in Ilgunas, not his audience.

That’s not to say that his recounting doesn’t spawn entertaining anecdotes — his slow discovery that a herd of cattle isn’t a threat is one in which the joke is on the author. But this is a narrative that lacks the moral courage that its author asks of the world in turning away from an oil-fueled future.

Time and again, confronted with ranchers, farmers, oil workers, merchants who stand at the other pole from Ilgunas on the pipeline issue, he mumbles that his mission is merely a long walk rather than risk the direct challenge of an opposing view.

Perhaps it is too easy to demand the moral courage required to stand contrary to those over whose land he trespasses, at least in thinly populated areas. Some landowners greet the trespasser with firearms until he ingratiatingly disarms them; others warn of neighbors who will shoot an intruder on sight.

But ultimately this backing down by the author reduces his account to a mere travel journal when he had begun his journey with the announced intent to change the world’s energy habits.

STEVE BRANDT, metro reporter

 

The Miracle on Monhegan Island
By Elizabeth Kelly. (Liveright, 323 pages, $25.95.)

 The title, the summery cover illustration and the dog narrator (yes, a dog narrates this book) might mislead readers; Elizabeth Kelly’s third novel, “The Miracle on Monhegan Island,” is neither lite nor chick lit. It’s serious and thought-provoking, shot through with dark humor and dark observations on religion and faith.

Years after the death of his young wife, Flory, prodigal son Spark Monahan returns to the family home off the coast of Maine. Here he is reunited with his father, a bombastic pastor; his brother Hugh, an artist; and his own 12-year-old son, Hally (short for “Hallelujah”), whom he has not seen since Hally was a baby.

The family is slightly off-kilter; they are all still recovering from Flory’s death and her profound mental illness. Meanwhile, Pastor Ragnar’s church is failing and everyone is broke.

Spark is a great character, cynical and defiant; his sidekick is Ned, a small red Shih-tzu that he stole from a parked car. Ned narrates the book; he is smart, wry, observant, thoughtful, curious, funny — and yet very much a dog. (He barks at inappropriate moments, sniffs everything, makes sardonic asides about other, lesser breeds.)

And then Hally sees a vision. Out on the bluffs overlooking the ocean, he sees the Virgin Mary, who tells him to pray and to love. Spark worries that Hally is cracking up like Flory, who saw things and heard voices. Hugh suspects confusion (“Are you sure it wasn’t DeeDee White?” a local resident with “a penchant for pale togas, fey notions, and ethereal wanderings”).

But Pastor Ragnar smells opportunity. And the next thing you know, word is out, the church is packed, money is rolling in and fervent pilgrims appear, following Hally night and day, hoping for a miracle.

“The Miracle on Monhegan Island” builds slowly from a story about a dysfunctional family to a novel about obsession, religious fervor and mental illness — and the sometimes very fine line between them. Even with a canine storyteller, this is one of the meatier books of the summer.

LAURIE HERTZEL, senior editor for books