Susan Froderberg's "Old Border Road" is a woman-finding-her-voice novel, but with none of the treacle or tropes of the genre. Froderberg writes with an elegance and originality that captivates, the words at once plunging us into the story and keeping us at a slight remove from which to admire her linguistic swoops and dodges. She peppers her sentences with the vocabulary of the desert, of ranching and the rodeo, words that might not be immediately familiar to many readers, but nonetheless serve to create a rich and convincing milieu.
The book's main character is Katherine, a young woman married too early and to the wrong man, truths that reveal themselves almost immediately. She and her husband, Son, move in with his parents on their Arizona ranch, and Katherine is put to work maintaining both the family's land and its appearances, the latter of which includes casting a blind eye to both her husband's and her father-in-law's philandering past and present.
The novel's small cast of characters, each with its own demons, include Katherine's long-suffering mother-in-law, a philandering New Age preacher, and a well-to-do family of fellow ranchers whose members work both to destroy and repair the relationships within Katherine's family. The characters, for all their bad behavior, are complexly wrought. Just as we think we've got them figured out, they shift slightly to reveal new facets and angles.
The story unfolds in a nonspecified era, with only the occasionally marker of modernity -- a flash of technology, something in a character's language -- to remind us that we are operating in a time more or less contemporaneous to our own. Froderberg's characters exist in a world largely unchanged over generations, where weather dictates both finances and emotions.
Existing tensions are heightened by the arrival of a severe drought. It looms at the fringes for several chapters before plunging headlong into the story with disastrous consequences. Crops wither, animals suffer and people yield to their basest desires. When the rain finally comes, it feels epic, biblical, almost plague-like in its intensity.
For all of the suffering and misdeeds contained within its pages, "Old Border Road" remains a compelling read. Froderberg pulls off the challenging feat of rendering painful situations in a sufficiently nuanced and complex way so as not to repel the reader. The story has heart, perhaps because in Katherine we find a character to rally behind without feeling like we've been manipulated into doing so by overly emotional or coercive writing. She is spirited but humble, fallible but ultimately triumphant.
Emily H. Freeman is Minneapolis writer.