After reading "Ghosts of Wyoming" in a single sitting, I Googled Alyson Hagy to see if it were true that she was born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. My incredulity came because the five stunning stories in this collection so perfectly, relentlessly illuminate Wyoming's past and present.
(And indeed it is true, though she now lives in Laramie, Wyo.)
Hagy's sparsely populated Wyoming is not the place tourists and hunters see -- not Jackson Hole, not Yellowstone, not mountain lodges or resort ranches -- but rather the high plains, foothills and reservations where ranchers, oil drillers, Indians and environmentalists live and clash, "the blinding miles of unmarked prairie" roamed by people many would consider marginal, and by ghosts.
Deftly delivering complex plots and characters, Hagy tackles Wyoming's history and present-day culture in a brilliant way -- through precise specificity about people and events that could not exist outside Wyoming. Every story contains a ghost of some sort.
In the dark "Border," a quiet teenager steals a puppy, then hitchhikes toward a new life, fleeing dark secrets that cannot be escaped. In "Brief Lives of the Trainmen," inspired by Plutarch's short histories of Roman heroes, each character springs to life in a mere four or five paragraphs of writing so good that it seems as if Hagy is showing off, like a gymnast doing extra backflips. In the zany "Superstition of the Indians," a slacker grad student encounters the ghost of a pioneer historian in a university library's dusty stacks. In "The Little Saint of Hoodoo Mountain," a scrappy teenager weary of caring for her crazy mother finds a child's skeleton in an old settler's cabin and moves it to a mountain cave, where it triggers conflict among Native Americans, white activists, developers and locals.
These are flawless stories by a virtuoso observer and writer. With a few words, Hagy can tell you everything you need to know about a character, as when a retired Game and Fish worker who is dying of cancer and wants to make one last climb of an isolated rock face says of his daughter, "a theatre major and known tweaker of meth," that she "has a way of underestimating the ruin a person can inflict upon herself."
"Ghosts of Wyoming" is a trip of several kinds -- to a region, to the past, to the kind of understanding afforded by only the most astute writer. Minneapolis' Graywolf Press has done well to snap up this one. Would that Minnesota had more writers with the gritty love and skill Hagy has dedicated to her adopted state.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.