"Sound Like Trapped Thunder," the debut essay collection from Minnesota writer Jessica Lind Peterson, begins like a fairy tale. We have a little red-haired girl alone in the woods caring for a wounded animal, a hummingbird that "glowed in the sunlight, green and red and neon, a tiny shimmering flag of itself."
Yet like any good fairy tale, the mood is unsettled, the scene askew. Familiar objects (a tree house, for instance) are revealed to be unlike what we imagined (the tree house is on the ground, has no walls or roof; the little girl is, in fact, 38). Fairy tales are often the best mode for plumbing those eerie glens where the happy light of childhood encounters the darker business of adulthood. This opening essay features "drunk bastard parents" and the kind of thoughtless act that leaves psychic bruises years later.
This is not to say that Peterson is a grim writer. Her book is funny — weird and witty and off-kilter in its delivery. She describes her beloved grandmother, who is 92 and asleep on the couch, as wearing a "white nightgown that was basically a doily with arm holes. … her face wrinkles all piled off to one side like they were taking their own separate nap."
Later, Peterson writes about catching an illicit glimpse, through binoculars, of two grizzly bears mating: "At first it was exciting, but then I got bored, like how I feel when I watch the Super Bowl." Her portraits of the natural world are serious without being self-serious — that fatal flaw of memoiristic nature writing. Essays often begin with bears or birds or forests before slipping into more intimate terrain. There are unsparing snippets of marital life, both loving and clear-eyed about its sacrifices and trade-offs, and digressions into the frustrating beauty of parenting.
The risk of nonfiction about the natural world is sleepiness — but that is never at issue in "Sound Like Trapped Thunder." Peterson's collection crackles with dangerous energy. The threat of bear maulings and horseback accidents lurks just around the next bend, and there is always the possibility that someone might be suffocated by snow. The author, who lives with her family in Canyon, Minn., north of Duluth, is adept at thinking about animals and nature and what they can teach us about ourselves. This territory is ripe for forced metaphors, but the author is light on her feet in this regard; an essay about wild horses operates as an extended meditation on domination, on the breaking of animals and of people, too.
"Sound Like Trapped Thunder" demonstrates a sharp intellect at work. One essay features a seemingly innocuous childhood anecdote, a dead whale in the Amazon rainforest (yes, correct), and a punishing Minnesota winter, which all begin to weave together.
Those of literary mind-set will be tempted to look for the seams, to sniff out precisely how this sleight-of-hand will be accomplished, but it's always best to simply let magicians cast their spells.
For this is ultimately what Peterson is after — the imperfect magic of our somewhat broken world. She wants to make peace with all its flaws and fractures. "There is a strange kind of joy that happens," she writes, "when you allow something to become just a little bit ruined."
Will McGrath is a Minneapolis-based writer and journalist. His debut book, "Everything Lost Is Found Again," won the Society of Midland Authors Award for Biography & Memoir.
Sound Like Trapped Thunder
By: Jessica Lind Peterson.
Publisher: Seneca Review Books, 103 pages, $15.99.