In her first novel, Lopez Island author Karen Fisher adopts an annoying style that is occasionally cryptic to the point of confusion or pretentious...

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“A Sudden Country”
by Karen Fisher
Random House, 366 pp., $24.95

Stay with this book, and you will be rewarded.

In her first novel, Lopez Island author Karen Fisher adopts an annoying style that is occasionally cryptic to the point of confusion or pretentious in its reach for lofty symbolism: “… his pocketed hands grown cold with possibility” … “MacLaren, in his cruel chair, smiled.”

Overlook such elliptical nonsense, and there is a really good story here: the pioneer push West, shorn of every vestige of romance. (Lust, yes; romance, no.)

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Lucy Mitchell lost her much-beloved husband Luther and, left with three small children, married Israel Mitchell, a nit-picking, controlling, demanding old goat with whom she has two more children. She is deeply resentful when he insists that they leave their home in Iowa and join a wagon train to Oregon.

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Karen Fisher

The author reads from “A Sudden Country,” 7:30 p.m., Sept. 7, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or and 3 p.m., Oct. 16, Queen Anne Books, 1811 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle; free (206-283-5624 or

But what can she do? It is 1847, and the move westward is in the air. People who have little to lose pack up everyone and everything that is dear to them and head out. They are, for the most part, unaware of the severe weather they will encounter, the hostile terrain they must cross and the shortage of food that quickly will come upon them. And then, there are the Indians. Some friendly, some not so.

Israel Mitchell is no better nor worse prepared than the others on the trail for the events that overtake them. Eventually, he and Lucy abandon almost everything they brought, including Lucy’s china and a precious box she was given by her mother. Starving, ill-clad and nearly broken by the experience, they finally arrive at the Whitmans’ mission on the banks of the Columbia River.

James MacLaren, a Scottish trapper, abandoned by his Indian wife, has buried three children and joins the party as Mitchell’s driver. Despite his grief, he and Lucy are inexorably drawn to each other, as much by their need to trust another human being with their life stories as anything else. Their love affair is brief and intense, with both of them burned by it.

Karen Fisher has based her story on oral history and letters that have been handed down in her own family; however, the freedom of the novel has allowed her to create complex characters in Lucy and James. She also has chronicled the suffering that travelers West endured, particularly the women. Filth, hunger, bugs in the flour, mosquitoes, rotting fish, dying oxen, sick children, loss of home and everything familiar were their daily lot.

MacLaren muses, “This country does attract fanatics and torment them.”

A good summation.