The Mountain Story / Lori Lansens
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2015.
Wolf Truly is turning 18. He's going to celebrate his birthday by hiking to the top of the mountain overshadowing his home in (the not-good part of) Palm Springs. And then he's going to jump off.
Wolf has been brought to this state by a long backstory that we learn in pieces throughout the book. What we know right away is that 1. his mother is dead, 2. his father is in prison for killing 2 people while driving drunk and 3. something very bad happened to his best friend on this very mountain within the last year.
All this combines to convince Wolf that his best bet is spending his 18th birthday as his last day on earth.
However. Fate intervenes, in the form of 3 women wandering in his path as he attempts to reach the remote point from which he means to jump. Being Wolf, and way too kind and generous despite himself, he offers to lead them to the lake they are not succeeding very well at finding. He tells himself he can leave them there and continue with his plan. Unfortunately, something happens, and they all get lost together on the mountainside. For five days.
Many harrowing things happen, to each of the players. In the blurb to the story, it reads: "Five days. Four hikers. Three survivors." And so throughout, you are calculating odds, trying to estimate the author's decisions, and guess for yourself who that lone non-survivor will be. It's nearly impossible. Do yourself a favour and try not to read anything ahead, as the uncertainty was certainly one of the joys of the book for me. It was very dramatic, and yet much more about these characters than the plot alone.
Wolf is a great character. He has depths -- despite a traumatic childhood and messed up relationships with his father and relatives (they live in the bad part of town in a chaotic household headed by his aunt and her multitude of kids), he has gravitas, and the ability to form a deep friendship with a boy he meets on his first day in California. He has solidity, and knowledge of the natural world, and cares about life in spite of himself.
The survival story is certainly compelling. The mountain is wilderness, even if they are lost within sight of the city lights far below. They face extreme weather, wild animals, impassible routes -- much to alarm them, and within this circumstance, they become closer than they might have ever thought possible. It is a fast read, as you want to keep speeding along to find out what is going to happen. But it's also a slow read, in the sense that the narrative loops back and adds to each person's story.
The three women are deftly drawn, but Wolf is the focus of the entire story, perhaps because the story is wrapped in the conceit of Wolf's writing a letter to his son to finally explain what happened all those years ago. I'm actually not sure that framing device was necessary, as the actual event that consumes the book is so vital that it doesn't really need extras. But it wasn't distracting, and there are some key moments that come from that setup.
Anyhow. A long review when the short form is: Read This. It was exciting, thoughtful, and absorbing. I loved the setting -- Lansens really brings all your senses into play with her descriptions of the smells, textures, tastes, sights and sounds of the mountain. And the characters all take a journey that is impossible to stop following. Great choice for your next read.
For another tale of a group of people stuck on a mountain -- although this time just briefly and in a sheltering cabin -- you could try Angie Abdou's Canterbury Trail. Be warned that there is lots of recreational drug use, strong language and sexual content in Abdou's work -- but it's all character based, and in opposition to The Mountain Story, this one is darkly funny.
Richard Wagamese's Medicine Walk is another story of a quiet son surviving a troubled relationship with an alcoholic father. While Franklin has much more gravitas than Wolf does, he has to trek through the wilderness to try to meet his father's final request. Wolf ends up doing something similar, without intending to.