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All in the journey

Last modified: 5/13/2012 12:00:00 AM
This month's column features three strong mothers: one who took her 5-year-old places most adults never go, one who was shipwrecked with her toddler, and one who thinks of her son while treating young soldiers in an Army field hospital.

You know a nonfiction book is compelling when you turn to your ever-patient spouse and ask, 'Doesn't this sound like fun?' When I explained that 'this' was peakbagging, or summiting 48 of New Hampshire's highest mountains, he said, 'No.' Fortunately, Patricia Ellis Herr's memoir, Up: A Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Experience, is armchair hiking for those who'd rather not encounter rotting snow or mad grouse.

Worried that their children were missing out on nature in their suburban Boston neighborhood, Herr and her husband bought a weekend place in the White Mountains. Soon after, Herr read a sign beside the Kancamagus Highway about New Hampshire peakbagging. Her first thought was that hiking might be fun for her energetic kids, especially 5-year-old Alex.

They're enthusiastic, but their first outing is a disaster. Herr hasn't prepared adequately, and they're mired in sloppy spring snow. Alex tells her, 'Mama, please figure it out a little better next time.' Herr buys gear, studies trail maps and finds online hiking forums. She and Alex start bagging mountains.

Herr's narrative is appealingly honest. She shares her mistakes and fears, and admits to uncertainties. She also addresses a common occurrence in our culture: strangers judging her family's choices.

Once a man confronts her and Alex on a trail, angry that a young child is on such a long hike. Herr tells Alex: 'When people see something they aren't used to seeing, they question it. Some then accept what they see . . . others refuse to change their minds.'

Herr and her small daughter have other big conversations as they hike, about safety, strangers, gender roles and knowing one's capabilities. Up perfectly captures the roller coaster ride of parenting: Alex is precocious one moment and childish the next; Herr adapts and responds.

Whether you like hiking, admire New Hampshire 'characters' (Herr and Alex meet kinder hikers on their treks) or want to enjoy a memoir about a family following their own path in a neatly mapped world, Up is an entertaining read.

Fuller history

A New Englander who would approve of girls going new places, Margaret Fuller walked a unique path herself.

When April Bernard's novel Miss Fuller begins, Henry Thoreau travels to Fire Island, N.Y., to identify the bodies of Margaret Fuller, her Italian husband, and their toddler after a shipwreck. Henry's fictional younger sister Anne recalls hearing Miss Fuller lecture in Boston; she remembers adults discussing Fuller's 'excessive education' and speculating that it made her 'goggle-eyed and very odd.'

Thoreau finds Fuller's small writing desk washed ashore and hopes to recover the manuscript of her forthcoming book on the Roman republic. Instead he finds a letter for Sophie Hawthorne. Nathaniel Hawthorne tells him to burn it, citing Fuller's 'irregular life.' After reading it himself, Thoreau, clearly disturbed, puts the letter back in the desk.

In the fictional letter, Fuller pours out her financial struggles, the excitement of being on assignment for the New York Tribune in Europe, her firm belief that she's the intellectual and professional equal of any man and her frustration that most people can't accept that. The letter details her loves and disappointments and the way maternal love shocks her 'like a thunder-clap.'

Margaret Fuller was controversial. Progressive Concord, Mass., did not embrace feminism, as Louisa May Alcott's satire Transcendental Wild Oats reveals to hilarious effect. Even Fuller's friends - Thoreau, Emerson, and the Hawthornes among them - questioned the propriety of her unusual marriage (her husband was not only Italian, but Catholic and much younger) and gossiped about its validity and about alleged earlier liaisons. Her impatience with those who would free slaves but treat women as inferior offended many. Fuller knew society wasn't prepared to accept her model of independent womanhood. Bernard's imagined letter reflects how painful that must have been.

In the final section of Miss Fuller, Anne finally reads the letter, 30 years later. She does some research, and learns that posthumous memoirs (gathered by Emerson) and fiction (by Hawthorne) were inaccurate and unflattering. The final chapter is lovely, as Anne grasps Fuller's imperfect but astonishing legacy. Bernard's choice of an invented champion for Fuller illuminates how few she had in her lifetime.

Wild, but plausible

James Tabor, author of Blind Descent, returns to otherworldly super caves in his novel, The Deep Zone. I admire his two heroines: Lenora Stillwell, maverick Army doctor, who faces a mutated acinetobacter, or ACE, 'super bug' killing patients in an Afghan field hospital; and Hallie Leland, cave explorer scientist, who was framed and fired from her government research job but is called back to work on an antibiotic to counter ACE. To do that she has to harvest organic material found only in a Mexican super cave in narco-traffickers' territory.

Tabor's plot was inspired by an ACE outbreak among U.S. soldiers in Iraq, as well as his cave research. His plot is wild but plausible, with shadowy operatives working for corporate overlords and loads of technical caving details and futuristic military gear. The novel's supporting characters are interesting and well-drawn.

The Deep Zone is a good read, if one that might keep you awake at night worrying about mutant bacteria.

(Send an email to Deb Baker at mindfulreader@yahoo.com.)


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