By Christine Byl; A Strange Object/Deep Vellum, 2023; 278 pages; $25.95.
Alaskan Christine Byl, author of the well-loved 2013 “Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods,” has returned with her first novel, “Lookout,” a beautifully written and deeply compassionate story of a rural family in northwest Montana.
Beginning in 1985, the story follows the Kinzler family, the neighboring family of close friends, and others through intertwined lives of love and loss for the following 24 years. Part of the book’s genius is the variety of voices that share in the storytelling — a collage of viewpoints that seamlessly build their lived-in world. Chapters switch among characters, sometimes in first-person voices, more often in third-person but reaching easily into each character’s thoughts and reactions. There’s even one chapter narrated by the family dog.
Here’s Cody, age nine, at the start: “When Cody saw the black sky and heard the neighbors breathless ... when the campgrounds got shut down and no one ran saws for fear of sparks and she watched the smokejumpers up from Missoula at the diner lunch counter with their grimy faces and bloodshot eyes, then she wondered — was her father frightened, too?”
While Cody and her father emerge as the central characters, everyone here has a significant role and is well-developed as a complex human being as realistically depicted as anyone we might encounter in life. Unresolved early traumas, questions of identity and self-worth, and the dynamics of family, friendship and rural communities all circulate through the years and the relationships.
The American West has always been a mythic place of wide-open spaces, weather and hard-riding cowboys. Byl has taken on the myths, not to totally debunk them but to present a fresher and more nuanced version. In “Lookout,” there are horses and struggling ranches, spaces large enough to get lost in, and young people yearning to leave. There are also enduring friendships, ties to the land, long-held secrets, vulnerability even among the toughest and meanest, and individuals fighting to reinvent themselves — or to accept who they and others might be. Cody and her sister play at imagining themselves in the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books, but they also cope with modern American life — with small and large cruelties, homophobia, addictions, changes to gender roles and environmental change. If there are “themes,” they come from within the characters’ circumstances rather than being imposed on them.
Early on, the young Cody, chasing cattle with her horse, finds herself in an unfamiliar landscape, removes a saddle she then can’t then lift back on, and is lost as night comes on. The poignancy of this scene will stick with anyone who has ever experienced a similar confusion, loss of confidence or fear — or has been on the end of worry about a missing loved one. “She (Cody) looked up at the moon with the clouds passing over it so the sky appeared to be moving as if she were on a ship, and then Cody had the feeling that almost everyone does at some point in a childhood. She realized the world was bigger than she had guessed. With only the slightest shift, she could disappear, she could cease to matter at all. A moment of terror passed, and she went on.” It’s in this scene that Cody, harkening to her father’s lesson to pay attention, learns just what that means. “Even in your own place, you had to pay attention.”
Byl’s descriptive writing is so specific and perfectly in tune with her people and their place, readers will experience her Montana world as though entering it themselves. “The cab (of a truck) smelled like gear oil and summer, a machined odor mixed in with the alchemy of leaf and sun and dust and sweat that, to a person from a certain part of the west, was nothing to note. It was what you’d say a place smelled like.” “The barbed wire at the top of the garden plot to keep out the deer — twisted and rusty, dew globes glinting on the spikes — reminded her of Christmas lights strung around a tiny, roofless house. The last patch of nearby snow hunkered on the north side of the chicken shed, iced at the edges, the top strewn with melted indents of needles.”
In the woods, Cody’s father teaches her how to select trees by thumping trunks with the butt of an axe, “listening for the dull thump of live wood. A bright “jat” meant standing dead, dry but not rotten, and a hollow “thunk” meant standing rot, which you could also see from a sign — conches on the trunk, moss in the roots, woodpeckered holes or flaking bark that left visible a layer of damp brown powder ...”
There’s a great deal of love in this book — often complicated, always genuinely depicted, never with a hint of sentimentality. Readers will come away with full and aching hearts, the best thing that can be said about any novel. The “lookout” of the title may refer to the fire lookouts that appear periodically through the text, but the larger meaning returns to Cody’s lesson about paying attention and, perhaps, caring for beloved places and the people who belong to them.