Bold ambition doesn’t necessarily serve Jonathan Evison well in his latest novel. His strength as a fiction writer — on fine display in his previous novel, “Lawn Boy” — is his knack for locating telling depths within small canvases and finding compelling drama in workaday lives. By contrast, his new book, “Legends of the North Cascades,” often strains credulity as it alternates between an Iraq War veteran’s battlefield experiences and PTSD travails and a young, pregnant Ice Age woman’s brutal fight for survival.
Both narratives center on a cave in the North Cascades where, in the present day, troubled ex-Marine Dave Cartwright — whose best years as a high school football hero are long behind him — retreats with his 7-year-old daughter, Bella, following his wife’s sudden death. The book takes a supernatural turn when Bella starts having visions of a woman named S’tka who, thousands of years earlier, took shelter in the same cave where Bella and her dad are holed up.
The book is weighted toward Bella’s perspective, but it’s Dave who keeps pushing their situation toward disaster. Ten years after his third tour in Iraq, Dave is still unable to adjust to civilian life which, in a nice piece of phrasing by Evison, he experiences as “a dull blur of reacting and pretending.”
Dave refuses any kind of assistance and stubbornly sees no point in discussing his withdrawal from all social contact, in part because he doesn’t understand it himself. He is adamant that, for him, the North Cascades are “the only hospitable place left in the world.” He would rather face mountain rigors (cold, hunger, isolation) than the “political and financial and social and emotional forces” that, as he sees it, are uniformly arrayed against him in his hometown of Vigilante Falls.
Dave’s mother, brother and brother-in-law do their best to lure him back into their fold, if only for Bella’s sake. But their appeals don’t reach him — and Bella is determined to stick with her father, no matter how primitive their living conditions get. (If Bella is squeamish about peeing and pooping in the woods, it isn’t mentioned.)
A forest ranger and a child welfare advocate climb the 9 miles up from Highway 20 to check on the pair. But there’s too much pride and paranoia at play in Dave for him to be swayed by these officials. Things actually go reasonably well for father and daughter over the Cascades summer. As winter sets in, however, the picture grows grim.
Dave and Bella’s story echoes that of Debra Granik’s terrific 2018 film, “Leave No Trace,” about a father and daughter living off the grid in Portland, Oregon’s sprawling Forest Park (a decidedly more pragmatic choice of campsite than Dave and Bella’s mountain retreat). Some aspects of Dave and Bella’s life even have a “Swiss Family Robinson” appeal to them.
The comments of Vigilante Falls’ townsfolk work well, too, as Dave’s relatives, his old football coach, a local librarian, the town sheriff and others chime in on the risks that “Cave Dave” is taking with his own and Bella’s lives.
The prehistoric narrative of S’tka and her newborn son — as channeled through Bella’s trancelike apprehensions of it — is less engaging, though it has its moments. When Evison notes how S’tka’s clan kept oral story traditions alive “like sacred flames, out of habit and vulnerability as much as anything else,” he makes a good guess as to how social cohesion was maintained amidst subsistence-existence challenges. He also registers what it’s like for S’tka and her son N’ka to be fatalistically aware of themselves as potential prey as they hunt their own quarries.
“Sometimes the things of this world know when they are beaten,” N’ka muses. “Sometimes they don’t fight to the bitter end because they know better.”
S’tka and N’ka’s long trek across glacier fields to find food and/or company is intrinsically a little dull. Evison gives it his best shot, but how many ways are there to describe hunger, fatigue and ice? His rapid switches between present day and Ice Age scenarios also prevent either narrative from feeling as immersive as you might like.
In its final dramatic stretch, the novel starts feeling so improbable that it’s difficult to buy into its suspense. There’s some humor in precocious Bella’s attempts to grasp the confusing vocabulary of the world around her, but Evison’s intended magic with her visions of S’tka’s sufferings, which at one point involve a gang rape, requires a suspension of disbelief that’s sometimes hard to muster.
Still, the gist of the novel can feel right on the mark, most notably in a moment when Dave, while shopping for supplies in Vigilante Falls, is asked, “Still camping, huh?”
His answer: “We’re all camping.”
True enough — and, like Dave, few of us have any clue what we’ll do when it’s time to strike camp.