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A Sudden Country

A Sudden Country

4.1 8
by Karen Fisher

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A vivid and revelatory novel based on actual events of the 1847 Oregon migration, A Sudden Country follows two characters of remarkable complexity and strength in a journey of survival and redemption.

James MacLaren, once a resourceful and ambitious Hudson’s Bay Company trader, has renounced his aspirations for a quiet family life in the Bitterroot


A vivid and revelatory novel based on actual events of the 1847 Oregon migration, A Sudden Country follows two characters of remarkable complexity and strength in a journey of survival and redemption.

James MacLaren, once a resourceful and ambitious Hudson’s Bay Company trader, has renounced his aspirations for a quiet family life in the Bitterroot wilderness. Yet his life is overturned in the winter of 1846, when his Nez Perce wife deserts him and his children die of smallpox. In the grip of a profound sorrow, MacLaren, whose home once spanned a continent, sets out to find his wife. But an act of secret vengeance changes his course, introducing him to a different wife and mother: Lucy Mitchell, journeying westward with her family.

Lucy, a remarried widow, careful mother, and reluctant emigrant, is drawn at once to the self-possessed MacLaren. Convinced that he is the key to her family’s safe passage, she persuades her husband to employ him. As their hidden stories and obsessions unfold, and pasts and cultures collide, both Lucy and MacLaren must confront the people they have truly been, are, and may become.

Alive with incident and insight, presenting with rare scope and intimacy the complex relations among nineteenth-century traders, immigrants, and Native Americans, A Sudden Country is, above all, a heroic and unforgettable story of love and loss, sacrifice and understanding.

Editorial Reviews

Sally Eckhoff
The real fascination of this journey lies in the details of the travel itself: the stench of a wagon packed with meat, the mess of eating and sleeping. The best passages deal with treacherous river crossings, where the mighty oxen, animals seldom heard from in this modern world, must find the bottom with their clawing hooves or drown. With cliffhanger following cliffhanger, Lucy and MacLaren's romance seems not just unlikely but gratuitous. There's no harm in a historic novel whose scenery is more colorful than its characters, but as Lucy starts to fade from the page, we may be a little glad to see her go.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Fisher builds a grand, mesmerizing novel on the bare chronicle left by her ancestor Emma Ruth Ross Slavin, who was 11 when her family joined the 1847 Oregon migration. Emma's mother, Lucy Mitchell, is a widow, remarried despite her grief for her first husband and resenting the decision of her second husband, Israel Mitchell, to emigrate. James McLaren is a Scottish trapper for the Hudson Bay Company, uneasy both with the emigrants and with the Native Americans, whose fate is bound up with his own. When McLaren loses his children to smallpox and his Nez Perce wife to another trapper, he tracks the trapper to Lucy Mitchell's wagon train. Lucy and McLaren's charged encounter opens her up to the land and him to his own need for roots as he signs on to guide her little band on their trek from the Iowa banks of the Missouri to the Columbia River in Oregon. Fisher tells their storires, past and present, with a poet's sense of the sound and heft of each word. Her compassionate, unsentimental eye makes even minor characters unforgettable. She reveals the labor of running a household when there is no house; equally well, she shows us mountains of death and splendor. In the collision between household and wilderness, Fisher brilliantly illuminates both the tragedy and the new life wrought by manifest destiny. This is a great novel of the American West. Agent, Christina Ward. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
With this compelling account of life on the Oregon Trail and the waning days of the fur trade, newcomer Fisher offers a literary masterpiece. The book's entwined narratives follow Lucy Mitchell, one of the author's forebears, and James MacLaren, a former Hudson Bay Company man who has lost his half-breed children to smallpox. When Lucy's imperious husband signs on with a group heading for Oregon, she reluctantly leaves her Iowa home to trek across the country with their four children, including a babe in arms. She and MacLaren meet when he joins their wagon train as a guide under questionable circumstances. Lucy soon senses a connection with MacLaren's sorrow. While Fisher's depiction of the West's grandeur is masterly, she approaches description obliquely, as would a poet, whether she is portraying a fleeting image from the natural world or the novel's major events. Powerful as the historical notes are, the novel's themes of love and connection, resolution of grief, and the wantonness of civilization transcend the Western genre to resonate with all readers. Buy this book!-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A first-time novelist turns her own family's past into a vigorous, deeply moving work of historical fiction. It begins in a snowstorm. A man named James MacLaren rides horseback, cradling his last living child, trying to keep her breathing. By the time she dies of smallpox, he's mad with grief and burning with fever himself. Meanwhile, the novel's second protagonist, Lucy Mitchell, has just given birth to a baby girl. It's 1846. Thousands of people are moving west, leaving the United States for new opportunities and imagined riches in the Oregon Territory. When Lucy's husband gets "Oregon fever," he sells their house in Iowa, packs his family in wagons and joins the migration. Few American archetypes are as beloved and cliched as the pioneer, but Fisher's settlers are vivid and particular. Brave and naive, generous and cruel, canny and ignorant: They are real, and Fisher manages to make the familiar story of their westward movement strange. She shows us people who are not just traveling to a new world, but creating it as they go, shedding the "civilization" they have known like the too-heavy luxuries they abandon along the trail. Fisher also shows us worlds that are disappearing as Americans crowd the frontier and "settle" the wild places, worlds that have been James MacLaren's home. A trader for the Hudson's Bay Company, MacLaren has spent his whole adult life mapping the uncharted depths of the continent. He meets Lucy after his daughter dies, as he's searching for his Nez Perce wife and the man she ran off with. When MacLaren signs on as driver and guide for the Mitchell family, his story becomes intertwined with Lucy's. Their slowly unfolding relationship is doomed but lovely, and asthey negotiate this shared grace, they also discover unknown aspects of themselves. Their parting is inevitable, but they part stronger and wiser-flawed, but noble, exemplars of their moment in history. Elegantly written and powerfully original: a magnificent story and a remarkable debut.
From the Publisher
“A splendid novel, rendering a past era of America with resonant clarity and unfolding an achingly human story. Fisher also has a distinctively lovely narrative voice. This is a very impressive debut from a writer I will be delighted to follow in the years to come.”
–Robert Olen Butler, author of Had a Good Time

“A gorgeous and mesmerizing story of a journey. Fisher provides both the historical context and the perfect detail with equal grace. She deals in big emotions, big adventures, big landscapes, and human-size people. This is a remarkable, remarkable book and I loved every word of it.”
–Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club

“On every page of A Sudden Country, Karen Fisher finds a way to astonish– with her extraordinary command of period details, with her profound insights into love-tormented hearts and minds, with her style, which is both lyrical and economical. This is a magnificent debut.”
–Larry Watson, author of Orchard and Montana 1948

“A Sudden Country will take you to the frontiers of your heart. Let Karen Fisher’s story remind you of what we all know most deeply: Life itself–the will to survive–depends on love.”
–Thomas Eidson, author of The Missing

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.59(w) x 9.49(h) x 1.22(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Sudden Country

By Karen Fisher

Random House

Karen Fisher
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400063221

Chapter One

There Alone

He carried his girl tied to his front, the trapsack on his back, the rifle balanced like a yoke along his shoulders. He walked all day on snowshoes, lost in effort, in steady breathing. The snow drove thick and clotted on his eyebrows, filled his beard. It cluttered his drawing breath.

He'd left the cabin, his valley with its knoll of pines. In the barn, the wind had pulled the uneaten hay and scattered it. He'd left the saddles, stiff with frost. The horses had run off.

There had been a pass to climb. A north wind to bear against. He'd thought to catch the clearing weather, though each night the moon grew smaller.

"Are you there, June?"

He made halt with his back to the wind. Took off his mittens, blew on his hands to thaw them. She stirred in the bundled blanket.

"Let me see."

Her hands emerged. MacLaren tried to feel them, but his own hands were too cold.

"All right?"

She nodded. She'd cried the night before, a sad thin wail against him in the stinging wind. He kept looking at her fingers, held them balled inside his hand. He squinted at the sky. In all the world now was nothing but the two of them, and white.

At midday, he unlaced his snowshoes, stood them on their tails. Knocked the ice out of his beard, lit a fire, stripped balsam boughs for tea. The snow had quit.

When water boiled, she took the blanket from him, held it tented as he'd shown her, so she could breathe the clearing steam. Her hair was damp, eyes murky gray like his. He watched her fingers curl around coarse wool. He put the steaming pot beside her.

All his life, he'd only gone from one thing to the next, only done what needed doing. His world had all been wood and water, fire, food; it had all been journeys needing made, traplines to set, a world of things to mend and mind with never time enough. But these past few weeks had taught a different kind of seeing. It was as though such endless diligence had muffled him somehow. But here now were the curled edges of his daughter's ermine scarf, and he could see the hairs stir in the wind, and could see each crack and split in her small lips. He had learned, in these past weeks, the shapes of her knees, her feet, had seen her secret skin. He knew the hard black scabs of scars she would come to live with. If he could command it.

She looked at him.

You are mine, he thought. With his eyes, again, he saved her.

She began to cough. He waited. Fed the fire. The wind came up and sprang the pines, and showered them with snow.

He came off the forest slopes into the river valley in a waning daylight moon. It took less strength to plod along than to see what shelter he could find, what fuel to make a fire. Everything was frozen. And he'd worked like this, in winter, his whole life, but always in the company of men. It was terrible to stop, to see how small she lay without him, waiting for some warmth.

At last, in a cove of pines, he trod the snow and floored the camp in boughs. Made rough shelter. Hacked down limbs and shook them.

He put the meat to boil, and listened to her breathing. He closed his eyes and waited.

One morning after he had made the graves, he'd stood and watched the wind blow down the snow, watched it spill off the laden pines, drift glittering through the blue. Each joint and twig of aspen lined in snow, a faery openwork of black and white. It hardly seemed the world should be so beautiful. He'd walked out past the barn and seen, on all the stumps and posts and rails, a dazzling crest. A herd of elk was feeding off his snowy hay, yarded up content as horses. He'd shot a cow, cut the meat to carry.

He woke to the stink of his blanket burning.

She was curled against him, her hand inside his coat. Until these recent weeks, it was always Lise she'd clung to. He'd never known this kind of flattery, or what it was to be a source of comfort. Now he heard the rattle in her lungs, like glue.

He'd come to think he could refuse to sleep. That a man could stay awake.

When Lispat went, he'd been sleeping. Lispat--Elizabeth--her lanky legs, sly eyes, the cheekbones like her mother's. She'd raged at the last for scissors, as though she might still cut some figure out of paper. She was ten. He'd had the fever himself by then, and was tired. Go to sleep, he'd said, and left her. Not believing any child of his could die so easily.

He remembered the dry grief cracking out. He'd stood in the doorway's glare, panic-stripped and heaving.

The ground was hard, he'd had no strength to bury her. He kept her for two days inside, then hauled her onto the ridgepole for fear of wolves. He came to fear his own sleep after that as well, for the losing of his other two. He stayed awake. He talked to them. Tried to cool their faces, keep the chill away. The fire he would keep alive.

Five days of fever turned to chill. Engorgement of the flesh. Suppuration. All his life he'd worked with men who had survived, seen women scarred, seen children blinded or made deaf, but now they owned that horror: variola. Agony, exact and inevasible, every surface real, remembered, the eyes, the tongue, the palms that closed around the cup, the soles on which he walked. His lungs shot through as though he had breathed lye. And no one in a hundred miles to know it.

"Tota?" June would call as he was dozing.

Alexander suffered it ten days. His golden child boy of two. Blessed release. He remembered carrying him outside, how the bright cold hit them. In the snow against the cabin wall, his legs had given out. He remembered sinking with his boy in his arms, waking sometime later. Remembered the horror of the snow, which had fallen while they slept, and lay unmelted in those curling palms.

So he and June, his middle child, were left. Still burning. Each breath disturbed what only begged for peace, each effort broke what little surface might be healing, but he tried to answer when she called. He lay festering in his robes, and moaned and would have been glad for death but for the nightmare fear that she'd be left alone. He would not die and leave her there alone. So he stayed, insensible of days and nights or that the horses had run off, until the sores began to melt together and stiffen into solid sheets like bark that split and stank, and he thought the two of them might live. And, for a silent fortnight, they had.

He pulled June's head against him. Smelled her hair. Six days, he thought. Six more, if he could do it. Then there would be rest.

The sun rose in a yellow band below the gray. By midday the sky was clearing. He'd reached the plain along the river, now followed that valley north. Blackfeet, Gros Ventres--he saw no villages, no sign, but they were there. He was making for the mission, St. Marie's. The Jesuits had come out two years before. They had built a crude hall and a palisade against the Blackfeet, who resented them. Their work was with the better tribes: Flathead, Salish. To bring them God and learning. To heal their sick.

"I'll take you there," he'd promised, when her lungs began to fail. "They'll help you. They'll have something."

At noon he stopped for longer than he meant to rest, and by dusk he was all but ruined. An ache had lodged in the backs of his legs since the fever, and would turn to knives, but the land here afforded nothing. He kept on, though his eyes were falling shut, his course wavering. The plain was too exposed. At last he made a camp above the river. It took two hours to find some wood and light it.

He boiled the meat by starlight. They heard voices in the silence, swells of laughter, a distant gathering in happy conversation.



She lay watching him. The whites of her eyes shone in the faint light.

"Can all people fly? After they be dead?"

He said, "Did your mother teach you that?"

"She said some go in the water."

"It's the river you hear," he said. "The river's moving under ice, that's all."


He woke. The sky was filled with stars.

"Tota. I'm cold. Tota."

She fevered, spooned against him, almost touching the last coals.

He reached for the wood behind him, put a few small pieces on.

"Tota, when will Sally come back?"

He closed his eyes, saw their horses homing through the snow--against the dark, he dreamed them flying, spinning through the heavy drifts, the spray of ice, steam roiling from their nostrils. The branches, in their wake, freed and springing.

"I don't know," he said. "I'll go out after thaw and find her."

None of them had asked about their mother. They hadn't seen Lise go. He'd told them that first lie and never told another, and wondered since if they'd known more than he. But hadn't found the strength to ask.

"The fire wants more."

She said this--as though she'd read his thoughts--in her mother's tongue, Nez Perce. He answered in the same. "He can't have more. Not here. Do you know why?"

She nodded.

Sometime next day he saw the sun a failing silver, veiled in ice. The snow began to rise and slide in ribbons. He tied his hat. He tucked his chin against her, bore along the hissing gusts, ice scouring his cheeks; it stung his eyes like sand and melted into tears. He blinked and wiped them, kept the river on his right. It was better on a day like this to move than to keep still.

He'd had to force her to drink tea that morning. Now, helping her to make her water, he saw her wasted thighs, the skin not honey brown, as it had been, but clay. Her breath was worse. She choked. She bleated, trembling.

"Stay with it," he tried to say. No sound came out. He said, "It's you and me. The two of us."

That night he set a twelve-foot pine alight, and slept in falling sparks, and held her fevering close against him.

With dawn came ease, then quiet. The snowflakes warmed and fattened, idled down. They could be close but had no way to tell; the sky was blank, the horizon sifted into nothing by the snow.

And he'd thought she might not make it, but it couldn't ease those hours. Kneeling at wet coals. The pine's black skeleton was steaming. Nothing lit. Nothing lit. She wailed. He sat and held her head. He'd have given her his life but only gave the blankets from around his feet when she told him hers were cold.

She said, "I want to stop."

"We'll stop. We'll stop the day."

His feet were bare. The snow had quit. Chickadees were peeping in the boughs.

"Tell me Elisabetta."

Elisabetta, the white bear, had danced like a woman if a fiddler played. She'd smiled and swayed her hips. He swallowed. Like ashes in his throat. All the features of his mind seemed gray and flattened. He couldn't remember what to say.

"A long time ago, when I was young . . ."

"On the stony beaches."

"On the stony beaches of the north," he said, "there lived a beautiful white bear. And her name was Elisabetta."

He tried to tell it, as he had so many times. When her breath went still and the color drained, he put her down and climbed the low rise behind him and started calling out for help. He called and called like a madman, until he was hoarse, until the icy snot ran down his face and all his breath was gone. But of course, no one was in this world to hear him.

Excerpted from A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Karen Fisher has lived in the West as a teacher, wrangler, farmer, and carpenter. She now lives with her husband and their three children on an island in the Puget Sound.

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Sudden Country 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
jj10 More than 1 year ago
Very disappointing -- especially after reading the reviews. This book went on forever and not in a good way. I spent a lot of time having to reread to understand just what was going on. The descriptions went on forever -- overdone! I kept hoping it would get better but did not.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Objectively, the book was excellent! I went to a reading of hers in Berkeley and when she was reading her selected chapter, I was mesmerized, literally. The book is fantastically written and engulfs you and takes you to another time. You become one with the characters and Karen's writing is superb and genuine.
blue-eyedhorse More than 1 year ago
This book was definitely not what I was expecting, but it was still an amazing read! The descriptions were absolutely phenomenal and I cannot wait for more novels by Mrs. Fisher. I would definitely recommend this book!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hunting for something to read while stuck inside during a blizzard, I pulled out "A Sudden Country" and read it for the fourth time in as many years. Sure, I knew how it would end...but the prose is salacious, transporting the reader not just into the time and place of the trail westward, but into the aching, yearning hearts of the characters. I have recommended this book to friends again and again. Karen Fisher's book is a blessing on my bookshelf.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is not for those looking for fluff. It's real, gritty, heart-wrenching, and it doesn't exactly have the Cinderalla ending one wants or expects. It's a tale of hard people living in a hard land to make an easy life where surviving the day is a blessing in itself. It makes one aware that in this day and age, no one has anything to complain about. The voice of the entire book is poetic and metaphorical and takes a clear mind to finish. Please read. You won't regret it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A Sudden Country transports you, immediately, to the Oregon Trail and the wagon-trains of 1847. The story it tells is raw and often brutal. The descriptions Karen Fisher provides are breath-takingly beautiful as the motley characters involved are gradually revealed to themselves and the reader. As, mile after astounding mile, you travel with them: men, women and children, dogs and horses. Even the land itself. This is an epic adventure, a tale of triumph and of human endeavour. If you enjoyed reading A Cold Mountain, you will love this book. I thoroughly recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was so eager to read this book based on the description. Unfortunately it became a real disappointment. The concept of the story was very intriguing: tales of the Oregon trail, Indians, lost loves and lives. The telling of these subjects was extremely difficult to follow. The author's descriptions of the environment, hardships and trials are very moving. The tales of the characters however was disjointed and never touched me. I don't often give up on books, but this one really wore me down. I just wish Ms Fischer was as good w/people as she was w/nature and it's surroundings.