Book review: Backwoods memoir a gripping read

solaceofstonesPeople fall into two categories: A. Those who think that giving up civilization and going to live alone in the woods would be a rich, romantic and unforgettable adventure. B. Those who think that being in Category A would be at least slightly worse than prison.

Readers of Julie Riddle’s “The Solace of Stones” (University of Nebraska Press) who already fall into Category B will find plenty of good reasons to stay there. And readers in Category A may sense themselves slowly slipping into Category B.

It’s not that the Montana life Riddle describes was all that horrible. When she was a toddler, her parents moved her and her 3-year-old brother from Tucson, Ariz., to the edge of the Cabinet Mountains near Troy. There they built a log cabin that they lived in for more than 20 years.

As wilderness treks go, it wasn’t that tough. But Riddle writes so vividly about the difficulties that she punctures the romance of mountain living for Category A readers, especially when they stop to consider how much more capable of making this journey the Riddle family was than most readers would be.

As Riddle describes it, her father was an all-around handyman, as capable of treating a smashed thumb as of lowering a log into a snug fit. Her mother was tough and resilient, willing to endure endless difficulties with only an occasional sob.

Tracy Kidder’s 1985 book “House” was the most entertaining book I have ever read about the ordinary hard work of building a house. Kidder’s specialty was describing ordinary activities in such vivid and unforgettable ways that his nonfiction books read like crime thrillers.

Riddle doesn’t quite top him, but she is a worthy successor. Her description of building the cabin takes up the first quarter of the book, with occasional time shifts into the past and future. She fills the pages with definitions of terms such as “auger,” “log dog” and “spud peeler”; with tips such as “conserve water by ‘flushing’ after two liquids. Flush after each solid. Please”; and with warnings such as “during the winter, in the dark after dinner, your children will have to break a path through thigh-deep snow down to the stream and dip the can in ice-fringed water, which will freeze your children’s coat sleeves and gloves and pinch their wrists and hands.”

She also throws in quotations, sometimes ironically, from wilderness survivalist Bradford Angier’s “How to Live in the Woods on Pennies a Day.” It all adds up to an amusing, but sobering, description of log cabin building. The family lives at first in a camper, then in a larger camper, then for nearly three years in the basement of the unfinished cabin.

Along the way, they endure propane explosions, abundant leaks and endless quests for firewood. Frustration occasionally nearly overwhelms them, but they hang in there.

Even when the cabin is finished, their troubles aren’t over. They struggle to make a living in rural Montana. Her father takes a job as a deputy sheriff, and her mother struggles to commute to college courses. But eventually they cobble together a life.

About a third of the way into the book, it takes a sharp turn. Riddle endures an abusive relationship in high school, then finishes college and goes off to teach English in Japan. There suppressed memories of sexual abuse she suffered at age 5 at a daycare in Butte resurface, and she has a near total breakdown.

At this point, readers who came along for the wilderness ride may begin to wonder if they have stumbled into another book. The setting and tone shift dramatically, and readers have to rethink their whole approach.

Like Category B wilderness explorers, readers might be tempted to give the whole thing up. But Riddle won’t let that happen. She writes with admirable grace, clear and straightforward, with just the right touch of poetic sensibility. So intense and personal is the second half of the book that the temptation to overwrite must have been ever present, but she does not give in.

Once you get on board, there is no getting off until the end of the ride. As in the Riddle family itself, persistence, hard work and a deep reservoir of stubbornness pay off.

And Riddle, we learn from the book cover, overcomes depression, celiac disease and even exposure to vermiculite from mines in Libby. She now teaches at Whitworth University and is an editor for Brevity and Rock and Sling.

How does she pull it off? You’ll just have to read that for yourself.

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