Myth, emotion, vision, and dream tell the story of legendary lovers who passion set the lake on fire.
Author Biography: Swain Wolfe is a writer and filmmaker who has lived in Montana most of his life. The Woman Who Lives in the Earth is his first novel.
His early films were made in Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Montana. An interest in cultural anthropology resulted in the films Energy & Morality, about the effect of high energy use on social behavior, and Phantom Cowboy, about the ways groups and individuals heighten their sense of identity by using aggression to isolate themselves and their causes from the general public. His films have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and have twice represented the United States in the International Public Television Conference.
Recent projects have taken him to a Bedouin shanty town on the Gulf of Aqaba and to an island in Alaska to observe and film grizzly bears. The latter film, The Sacred Bear, will explore bear stories from early Eurasian and North American cultures, and compare our present views of nature with those of our early ancestors. One day in a meadow by the sea, he woke from a nap to find himself surrounded by five large grizzlies. He explained, "The bears were eating Chocolate Lilies. They ignored me. But sometimes, when I'm just waking up, I can still feel bears around me: large, serene, self-possessed bears."
For years Wolfe lived and worked around natural storytellers. The first were the cowboys he lived with as a boy on ranches in Colorado and Montana. As a young man he worked in the underground copper mines of Butte andWalkerville, and later as a logger in the Bitterroot Mountains. In an interview for the Bloomsbury Review he explained how these jobs affected the way he sees the world.
"When you're underground for a while, you begin to get the feel of where the ore flows, how hard the granite is one place from another, how hot the wall temperature is from level to level, where the earth slips and messes up the tracks, and things you knew but never had words for. Then one day after work you drive over to Anaconda to see your girl and you realize something is very different. Your world is never going to be the same because you cannot be on the surface without thinking about what's underneath. And like water seeping through sand, that sensation invades everything, all your thoughts, your dreams. You're never the same. The mines let you see in unconventional ways. At the same time, many of the miners knew how to tell stories better and with greater purpose than any I've read.
"After the mines, I worked in the woods. I became intensely aware of trees, which created another world for me and a very different way of seeing. Our early ancestors believed the world was alive and aware of us. I know how that feels and it affects how I write and how I tell stories."
His novel, The Woman Who Lives in the Earth, evolved over a period of years. "The end of the story came from a dream I had as a child. The personalities of the people, even various animals, and, of course, all those experiences that show up in small, unconscious ways all these things became a vague sensation that surrounded my dream. Then one day it was a story. It was like seeing a face for the first time in the ancient plaster of your kitchen wall. We can look at something for years, and suddenly see it."
In recent years his interest as a filmmaker and writer have focused on the way different cultures and individuals use stories. He has just finished a children's story about a lonely man who discovers what it is that hides in his shadow and why his past follows him wherever her goes. Wolfe is currently working on a love story about two people who attempt to create a life outside the norms and conventions of society.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
They said the lake was so deep in places you could never find bottom. When Liz was nine, Jess Beckett and his grandfather tied a three-pound iron bolt to a mile of twine and let it play out into the deepest part of the lake. The bolt never touched bottom. When they pulled up the twine, the bolt was gone. Something a mile down had taken it.
She had known a mysterious, wild, and deadly lake. It left a sensation deep inside that seemed stronger than love. She never imagined this feeling would betray her. She was not prepared for the complexity that shaped her life beyond the boundaries of her youth. Like a selfish lover, the lake had slowly pulled her apart.
Now she was going back, twenty-three years later, her face pressed to the window, searching the ground below for a familiar road or mountain peak. She stretched her neck, giving the short, cowlick of a man next to her a chance to ask where she was going, where she was from, and what she did.
"To visit my grandmother, and get a good rest. I live in Boston. I analyze real estate demographics."
The man perked up on analyze. "What do you do with the numbers?" he asked. The way he said numbers made them sound precious, like children or peaches.
"We contract to the feds," she said. "But they're used by everybody: city planners, insurance companies, chain stores, housing developers. They all get their fingers in our numbers."
"Interesting work." He nodded and smiled.
She sighed in anticipation of escape as the plane tilted into its descent. Most of the passengers were businessmen, stuffed into their pants, mustached and cowboy-booted men withscotch and sirloin bellies who, like the cows they ate, leaned heavily in all directions.
She imagined the plane plunging into the lake, silent
and sharp--the bellied men, wide-eyed and gripped in screams. She was happy to trade them to God for the snowy egret or the black-footed ferret or whatever the infinite absorption of scotch and sirloin was putting an end to.
Outside the terminal an Indian leaned against an old, blue Ford pickup, his head tilted up toward the sky, reading the clouds. Liz studied him through the tinted glass, guessing the facts of his life. Sure that he was her ride, she tapped on the glass and waved.
The Indian failed to notice. He was watching the clouds change from animals to people and back again. She stopped trying to get his attention and went to the door, keeping an eye on her luggage.
"Excuse me," she called. "Are you Ana's man?"
His head came forward as his eyes took in the short skirt and red lips. "I never thought of it that way," he said. He had a pockmarked face, greasy hair pulled back straight in a long braid, and a voice that was flat and soft in a way that sounded thoughtful or menacing.
She wondered if his hair was dirty or if he greased it deliberately.
"Did Ana send you?" she asked. Her tone betrayed her hope that he was not the one.
"I came to give Elizabeth a ride to Ana Hanson's."
"It's Liz," she said. Her voice made a nervous little jump and her eyes darted from the Indian to her luggage. She was only anxious for her possessions, but he assumed she was giving orders. He retrieved the luggage--a weekend case and a larger suitcase--and set them in the back of his pickup. He carefully covered them with a tarp, which he secured with a cinder block at each corner.
She quelled a groan of disbelief. She could imagine the blocks sliding around, letting the tarp sail into the road, causing an accident. And she did not like his wreck of a truck. A van would have made more sense. Her concern showed in her hesitation. She got in, clutching a small computer and a handbag.
A faint smile slid across the Indian's face. She guessed he was amused by her apprehension. She balanced the computer and the bag on her knees and reached for the seat belt, but the truck was designed before the era of safety consciousness. He glanced down at her searching hands. She could see he thought she was pathetic. She stared at him, seat belt-less and angry.
The Indian ignored her and started the truck. The lack of a muffler glorified their exit from the parking lot.
"You're a magazine woman," he said in his soft tone, barely audible over the gurgle of the engine.
"What makes you think I'm in publishing?" she asked.
"No, not that way. You're like a woman in a magazine."
"How so?" she asked.
"Not too many people dress that fancy. Nobody here."
"Professional women wear blue jeans and cowboy boots, I suppose?"
"I don't know about professional women. My people's women only dress up for church. But, the Father doesn't like those short skirts."
She checked him for humor, found none, and decided to sit out the ride in silence. For a half hour, she stared at the passing landscape as the unmuffled engine rapped at her nerves.
On the higher hills, pale green sage rolled back from the road toward the mountains and their snow-covered peaks. An unusually wet, warm spring had filled the creeks and river, and flooded the lowest pastures. The highway stretched north pulling her toward the lake and old possibilities.
The Indian had soured things for her. His belly hung down over the big silver beacon of a buckle, stretching his shirt taut at the mother-of-pearl snaps. He was a mean, bitter man. She wondered why Ana had sent him.
What People are Saying About This
In The Woman Who Lives in the Earth, Swain Wolfe introduced himself as a writer of great imagination and sensitivity. Now, in The Lake Dreams the Sky, he proves himself to be a storyteller of awesome proportions. This is truly one of those books you can't put down.
The Lake Dreams the Sky is about the clash between a remnant tribal culture and the non-culture of the Western town. But greater than its clash is its sentence-by-sentence music. Swain Wolfe's voice -- with its quiet slippings into myth, eroticism, vision, dream -- bends the mind the way a prism bends light or a blues man his guitar strings. . . .
Swain Wolfe's irresistible novel entrances the reader with a silken ribbon of narrative and a warm, generous voice . . . about the wonderful setting, the pleasures of falling in love, and the tensile bond between women of kin. . . . The story pierces the reader with the pain of discovering just what it means to be an outlaw, just how dangerous it is to break the rules.
"A soaring departure from his earlier writing that nonetheless draws on all the strengths and specialness of that first work...The Lake Dreams the Sky is an astonishment of tragic Americana and sees with a singular vision the complications of love, nature, heroism, and art."
A soaring departure from his earlier writing that nonetheless draws on all the strengths and specialness of that first work . . . The Lake Dreams the Sky is an astonishment of tragic Americana and sees with a singular vision the complications of love, nature, heroism, and art.
"THE LAKE DREAMS THE SKY is an elegantly written, heartfelt novel, deserving of a wide readership."
Reading Group Guide
The Lake Dreams the Sky is set near a deep mountain lake in Montana. After twenty-three years away, Liz, a Boston businesswoman, returns to visit her eccentric grandmother, seeking solace from the lake that made her first believe the world was alive and aware.
Among her long-stored treasures she finds a primitive painting of a woman that reminds her of a legend from childhood; a romance about lovers whose passion sets the lake on fire. The heart of the novel is that love story, of a post-World War II affair between Rose, a local waitress raised by Indians, and a drifter named Cody. Their defiance of society's unwritten rules makes these lovers outlaws in an unforgiving time.
The Lake Dreams the Sky indelibly conjures a landscape of passion, shifting perception, and the visceral longings that shape our lives.
Praise for The Lake Dreams the Sky:
"The Lake Dreams the Sky is about the clash between a remnant tribal culture and the nonculture of the Western town. But greater than its clash is its sentence-by-sentence music. Swain Wolfe's voice--with its quiet slippings into myth, eroticism, vision, dream--bends the mind the way a prism bends light or a blues man his guitar strings....Mr. Wolfe, for my money, is the most formidable Montana late-bloomer since Norman Maclean."
--David James Duncan, author of The River Why
"In The Woman Who Lives In the Earth, Swain Wolfe introduced himself as a writer of great imagination and sensitivity. Now...he proves himself to be a storyteller of awesome proportions."
--James Welch, author of Fools Crow
"An irresistible novel about the pleasures of falling in love, the tensile bond between women of kin, and the pain of discovering just what it means to be an outlaw, just how dangerous it is to break the rules."
--Sandra Scofield, author of Plain Seeing
"Swain Wolfe is a magician--his hypnotic prose makes the familiar strange, the strange familiar."
." -- Rick DeMarinis, author of Coming Triumph of the Free World
Topics for Discussion
1. Liz returns twenty-three years later to the lake where she grew up, because she wants "some of the confidence and understanding she possessed as a child." (p.10) What does returning home mean to people? How does the experience of nature in childhood differ from what we experience as adults?
2. Throughout the novel, the theme of the relationship between primitive man and nature emerges. Ana says, "Before horses or farming, we were totally dependent on wild animals....We were compelled to speak to nature and to negotiate for more control." (p. 95) How has our lack of dependence on nature affected our lives and the way we view the world? Where does the source of our power lie now? With whom do we negotiate for control?
3. When Rose tells Cody about being raised by Indians, she describes a world that is aware, "the world was awake, everything could speak: trees and animals, grass and stones--they all spoke. Sometimes they would speak to me. And they could see me. They were thinking about me." (p. 42) How does the belief that the world is alive and aware affect our own sense of who and where we are?
4. When Liz asks Ana to define romance, the old woman responds, "Shared yearning." Do you agree? How would you describe romantic love?
5. Ana claims that primitive man approached nature with rapture and awe and that today, "Perhaps rapture and awe became unnecessary in our negotiations with animals and found another expression." (p. 96) What do you think are these alternative expressions? Does love today have the power and mystery our ancestors found in nature?
6. In considering the difference between Indians and whites, Liz says, "It's ironic that the Indians felt betrayed by their culture, because their hearts weren't hardened and we feel betrayed because ours are." (p. 185) How does this statement reflect the relationship between Native Americans and the rest of society? What kept their hearts from hardening? What has hardened ours?
7. This novel interweaves a contemporary story with one that takes place in the forties. The difference in life's pace is obvious. In the contemporary story, Ana comments, "We have good reason to feel crazy. We have the nervous system of an animal that came from a slow-moving world where all its energy came from the food it ate. Now look at us. Evolution never prepared you for this." (p. 140) Is this a definition of stress as we know it? How has access to increased sources of energy changed our lives?
8. In the novel, Katherine, the old Indian woman who raised Rose, embodies tradition and wisdom. Are we as aware of patterns and cycles now as those in the past might have been? How does wisdom differ in today's world? What place does tradition have in contemporary life?
9. Cody and Rose were ostracized in the forties because they defied society's sense of propriety. Society has made outlaws of people for many reasons, and we often view them romantically. What qualities have made people outlaws throughout history? Why are they so appealing?
10. From talking crows to flying cars, waking dreams to the monster loneliness at the bottom of the lake, magic realism infuses the pages of this novel. How does magic realism expand and reflect the novel's themes?
A Reader's Guide to The Work of Swain Wolfe
At six or seven, I dreamed I was chased by a mob through the woods into a tower. I bolted the door and ran up the spiral stairs to the roof where icicles were melting in the sun. It occurred to me to become ice so the sun could melt me and I could escape. But intsead I was transformed into a heavy mist. I sank down into the mob. They inhaled me. I was the mob and they were me. Forty-five years later, that dream became an element of my first novel, The Woman Who Lives in the Earth.
During my childhood, my father was director of a tuberculosis asylum where I explored the underground tunnels that connected the steam plant to the buildings. When my father died, my mother took her horses to a camp in the mountains. We guided hunters and dudes, traded horses, and poached deer. I worked the night shift on a lumber mill log pond in high school. Later, I got a job in the copper mines in Butte, Montana. In time I began to know the underground: how the veins of ore flowed through the mountain, how the temperature changed from level to level, and how the rail tracks jogged where the earth had slipped. One weekend I went for a drive and realized something was different: I could not look at the ground without wondering what was beneath its surface.
Then I worked as a hooker and choker-setter for Cameron Logging in the Lolo Forest. Eventually, a kind of ecstasy overcame me, and I became conversant with trees.
I fell in love with a girl who liked clay. I became a potter, then I made films--surreal, abstract, arty films. I spent a summer making a film about the children of migrant Mexican beet workers and forgot about pottery. For the next thirty years, I made films on ecology and cultural anthropology.
I rewrote a film script as a short novel--The Woman Who Lives In the Earth, which I self-published through five printings and a life on credit cards. One day, the publisher of HarperCollins walked in the Boulder Bookstore and asked about regional bestsellers. "Well, I can't keep this one in stock," the bookseller told him, and handed him my book.
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