Landscapes are motion-capture images of the Earth’s geography. We count on seemingly permanent features — a river, a mountain — to help locate ourselves in space. But how many of us notice the traces left behind by those who were here before us? On hikes in state forests of the Finger Lakes, I stumbled over tiny graveyards where long-gone settlers buried their dead, and I learned to see the twin “homestead oaks” that were the only indications of what were once the bounty lands promised to Revolutionary War veterans.
In Nancy Wayson Dinan’s lambent novel, “Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here,” readers walk a central Texas suffused with the histories of the Comanche, the families of immigrant settlers, the Mexicans and American soldiers who battled over the state’s imaginary borders. Boyd, the daughter of Lucy Maud, sets out during the disastrous 2015 floods in search of her missing friend, Isaac. Flash floods have inundated the drought-stricken back country, sending walls of water over roads and farms. The water sweeps away everything it touches, taking out animals, trees, cars, bridges and humans.
Boyd has always been able to sense the suffering of others, a level of empathy that inflicts pain she finds hard to endure. She senses that Isaac, her childhood friend and adult love interest, is in peril. He is stuck in the high branches of a tree after getting caught in floodwaters and stranded amid miles of water.
But as Boyd traverses the countryside where she has grown up, her rescue mission is made even more harrowing by the ghosts who remain rooted in replaying their fatal traumas. Many of them have died as a result of nature’s unforgiving toll, but others, like the story behind the naming of Babyhead Mountain, were victims of their neighbors’ greed.
Dinan’s beautiful prose focuses on the specifics of Texas history and lessons gleaned from larger human stories. She streams together the stories usually only known to those who live there. The glaciers never made it that far south, so most of the state’s lakes formed after rivers were dammed and those downstream flooded out. Her descriptions of thalassophobia (the fear of deep water) provoked my own sense of dread at what lies beneath.
“The water here in the Hill Country lakes is dark, though, and only imagine what could be down there. … The houses and windmills and the churches with empty pews; only imagine how horrible to swim over these things, to have other lives in other eras playing out beneath your unprotected feet.”
Interspersed throughout Dinan’s novel are other markers, those moments in our collective history that document the injuries we have inflicted on Earth. Will our own fatal traumas play out as ghosts in the planet’s future? Who will find our “hunger stones,” our homestead oaks?
Lorraine Berry is a writer in Florida.
Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here
By: Nancy Wayson Dinan.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 336 pages, $27.