Pam Houston is known for writing books that seem autobiographical, yet aren’t. Her characters resemble herself, yet she employs the flexibility of fiction to tell the stories she wants to tell.
“Deep Creek” is an honest-to-goodness memoir. So it’s funny that some of her true stories seem unbelievable: drifting among narwhals in the Arctic, finding the kindest of strangers among switchblade-wielding adolescents, learning that her mother found a babysitter for newborn Pam before she’d left the maternity ward — not so she could return to work, but so she could party.
Houston here lets truth tell the stories she wants to tell, and they are quietly stunning, but also provocative in the contradictions she poses. The subtitle reveals her mission: “Finding Hope in the High Country.”
The High Country is her ranch in Colorado, bought in 1993 using every cent from her debut success of “Cowboys Are My Weakness” to make the down payment and accepting the contradiction that every next payment would require being away to earn a living as an author, teacher and speaker.
Now nearing 60, she can spend more time there, minding her horses, chickens, sheep and dogs — hard work, she writes, because she’s not a rancher.
But the hypervigilance she learned as the child of an father who abused her emotionally, physically and sexually — an aside about hiding in the clothes dryer makes you gulp — serves her well as she presupposes all sorts of calamities, then works to avert them.
Sometimes, though, calamities win. In what at first seems a strange departure from essays about relationships, Houston recaps 40 days in 2013, when the West Fork Fire tore through 73,000 acres of Colorado, fueled by trees killed by the spruce bark beetle.
Packing for evacuation, she realizes that all of her 3,000 books are not her most valued possessions, but only “books I adore by people I adore, which are the only ones worth saving. I get out to the car with one largish produce box and call it good.”
Here is where Houston more sharply focuses the book’s emerging theme of reconciling grief and hope.
Her ranch was spared and, within weeks, hope shows in shoots of greenery poking through ash. Yet she grieves the trees killed by beetles that thrive in the Earth’s warming temperatures. Hope is in the tinderbox being cleared, grief that it had to be.
Another instance: In the Canadian Arctic, she saw a gigantic ice island that had made news when it broke from Greenland’s ice sheet.
“I was face-to-face-with my familiar koan: how to be with the incandescent beauty of the iceberg without grieving the loss of polar bear habitat its appearance implied. How to grieve the polar bear without loving [the iceberg] any less.”
Houston’s goal is to try and live simultaneously inside the wonder and the grief of life’s moments, whether they are forest fires or violent fathers, “without having to diminish one to accommodate the other.”
This is not the casual stuff of New Year’s resolutions. But the goal’s complexity may be Houston’s intent, pushing us to pause and think and ponder and wrestle and, ideally, to do something.
But above all, to hope.
Kim Ode is a former features writer for the Star Tribune.
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
By: Pam Houston.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 303 pages, $25.95.