Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Wednesday, December 9, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Breaking Wild

Berkley: Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets

Berkley: Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets

Berkley: Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets

Berkley: Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets

Breaking Wild

by Diane Les Becquets

Breaking Wild is the first adult novel by Diane Les Becquets, author of highly praised young adult novels including Season of Ice and The Stones of Mourning Creek. Carefully crafted characters and measured pacing define this tale of two women's parallel personal journeys in the wilderness of northwestern Colorado.

Amy Raye Latour is a wife and mother, an accomplished outdoorswoman and a strong personality. She is on a camping and hunting trip with two male friends. The men have brought down elk with rifles, but Amy Raye hunts with a compound bow; she needs to get away from her companions to find the stillness and quiet required to get close enough to her prey. So she sneaks away from camp on their last morning, with only a light pack. When she doesn't show up again that night, her friends call local authorities.

Pru Hathaway lives in the nearby town of Rio Mesa with her teenaged son, Joseph, and her dog, Kona. Pru is an archeological law enforcement ranger with the Bureau of Land Management; Kona is certified for search-and-rescue, including avalanche conditions, The sheriff, Colm McCormac, is a friend; when he gets the call about Amy Raye, he turns to Pru.

The personalities of the two women shape the novel: they are both more complicated than they seem on first meeting, and while they are very different, both have concealed and storied pasts. One of Les Becquets's triumphs is the tantalizingly paced release of new information: about Pru's personal history, about Amy Raye's troubles and the tangled web of her life, any strand of which may be implicated in her disappearance. Similarly meticulous is the build-up to Pru and Amy Raye's expected meeting. This is the story of a chase: Pru and Kona pursue Amy Raye through the backwoods, tracking her movements through drifting snow and rugged terrain, hoping to find her before she succumbs to a mountain lion or the harsh winter conditions. As one party makes a move, the other makes a corresponding move, and the pressure increases. Breaking Wild is not only a masterpiece of characterization, but a feat of taut anticipation and suspense.

Somewhat relieving this tension are flashback interludes to Pru's and Amy Raye's respective histories, and the personal dramas of the present timeline. Pru's son, Joseph, although not entirely untroubled, is a sweet young man; he wonders if Pru and the sheriff--himself an intriguing minor character--should date. Amy Raye's marriage is not without its cracks, a situation perhaps symbolized by the description of her hunting in the early pages: her husband prefers to shoot with a camera, and has asked her not to keep guns in the house. Thus she uses the compound bow instead, and it is this choice that causes her to leave camp alone in the first place.

Three sections--entitled "Bear," "Cougar" and "Deer"--further shape the book; chapters within those sections alternate between Pru's first-person perspective and a third-person view of Amy Raye's experiences. This format is telling. The natural landscape of northwestern Colorado is a pivotal feature, the backdrop that sets the stakes for a spectacle of life and death, informing every detail, every decision made. Both Pru and Amy Raye repeatedly note the temperature and humidity level, the wind strength and direction, in judging where, when and if to travel. When Pru first tells Kona to "go find," on page 36 of more than 300, the reader knows that Amy Raye will not be so easily located. From then on, animal life and nature's rhythms are increasingly crucial to Amy Raye's subsistence. Is she hunting, or being hunted? She has gone into the wild seeking something undefined: "In that moment she felt everything--life, death, the tangy sweet smell of pine, the freshness of the rain. It was the immensity of those feelings that drove her mad at times."

While the niceties of backwoods survival are fully developed, the drama of the natural world is less central to the story than the human dramas. The travels of Amy Raye and Pru give them room to grow, and to ask and answer questions of how to love; what a healthy relationship looks like; the nature of addiction; and the meaning and forms of family and community. Indeed, part of what Amy Raye has gone into the woods to find is a connection to her past; Pru found solace in the outdoors when she suffered a personal tragedy. So the two threads of the story--family and community, natural wilderness--intertwine, just as the lives of two women do.

Les Becquets portrays a credible and compelling cast of characters, especially the two strong women at its center. Breaking Wild is a rare novel in its mastery of both plot and character, with deliberate rhythm, thrilling suspense and a striking backdrop. Its breathless momentum carries through to a dramatic conclusion. --Julia Jenkins

Berkley Books, $25.95, hardcover, 9780425283783, February 9, 2016

Berkley: Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets

Diane Les Becquets: The Wilderness Within

photo: Nathaniel Boesch

Diane Les Becquets is from Nashville, Tenn., and holds degrees from Auburn University and the University of Southern Maine. She has taught writing workshops across the country, and is now a professor at Southern New Hampshire University. In addition, she has worked as a medical journalist, an archeology assistant, a marketing consultant, a sand and gravel dispatcher, a copywriter and a lifeguard. She is a competitive archer, and enjoys bicycling, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, backpacking, competing in sprint triathlons and hiking in the woods with her Labrador, Lacey. Before moving to New Hampshire she lived in a small ranching town in northwestern Colorado for almost 14 years, raising her three sons. Prior to Breaking Wild, Les Becquets published three young adult novels: The Stones of Mourning Creek, Love, Cajun Style and Season of Ice.

Where did the plot concept come from? Did it have to be set in northwestern Colorado?

I love this question because it triggers so many unforgettable moments from the years I lived in Colorado. The idea for the plot first came to me one evening when I was bow hunting alone. I had ventured into an area called Cyclone Pass, way off the grid, and was bugling back and forth with an elk, following him deeper and deeper into the terrain. The land was steep and littered with deadfall. But then the sky darkened; dusk had passed, and I knew it was too late to take a shot. However, what I also realized was that I was lost. I had gotten so caught up in the adrenaline rush of the hunt that I had failed to keep track of my bearings. The cloud cover was thick, the temperatures cold, and rain began to fall. I went for my headlamp in my backpack, but soon discovered that either the batteries were dead or the bulb had burned out. Not only did I not have a cell phone with me (not even sure I owned one at that time), this was an area where there was no cell signal. Four or five hours later, I found my way back to the trail, and eventually was at my truck. On the drive home that night, I began to imagine a story about a female bow hunter who goes missing. I thought about what that could mean about her life metaphorically. I was at an impasse in my own life, and oftentimes I had that sinking feeling of being lost, of feeling totally confused at which direction to take. I still have the note a friend wrote to me during that time: Within yourself you hold the compass. Together we will choose the direction. The geography of Breaking Wild is a metaphor for these women's lives.

I chose northwestern Colorado for several reasons. First, this was an area I had called home for almost 14 years, where I had raised my three sons. The land and the people of this part of the state are very distinct from other areas. In many ways this is the last of the true West. It is an area I have tremendous fondness for. But also, geographically, this area is fascinating. It contains what archeologists and geologists refer to as the "edge effect," where the Great Plains meets the High Desert and the Rocky Mountains. The result is dramatic, with rock formations and crevasses and magnificent storms and winds. Breaking Wild is situated in the Canyon Pintada District, terrain that is not only rich in geological formations, but also in Native American artifacts. There are over 300  archeological sites in this expanse of land. To be immersed in that kind of spiritual geography--very simply, there is nothing like it.

What makes for a compelling protagonist?

This is a difficult question, and I don't think there is one answer. For me, the protagonists whom I am the most compelled by are those characters whom I care about. They become real to me, as do their stories. My life becomes larger because they are in it. Their lives, their stories, who they are, inspire me in both big and small ways. No longer does the protagonist exist simply as a persona on a page, but the reading experience becomes personal; it becomes a relationship. Once that relationship has been established, I'm going to become completely invested in what happens to her, especially when I know she has something at risk. Have you ever found yourself reading a book or watching a film and praying for the character, literally sending up a little prayer, and then catching yourself and saying, "Wait a minute. What am I doing? This isn't real"? I am guilty of this quite often and that is an enormous compliment to the artist.

I love the way you switch between Amy Raye's and Pru's perspectives. Why is only one of these written in the first person?

This is a question I'll have to answer in retrospect, as it wasn't a conscious decision. I believe Pru would be the most similar to me, and perhaps that is why her story is told in first person. But in retrospect, I can also say that Pru is a cause-and-effect person, which makes a first-person account all that more accessible. I felt as if I could inhabit Pru and write what she saw and understood. Amy Raye is much more complicated. I wrote to understand her. I was the observer as I was writing her story.

Do you have a favorite of your two female leads?

Because I identify the most with Pru, because I felt as though I already knew her story before I wrote it, I think Amy Raye would have to be my favorite. She was the fresh, new character for me to get to know. She's completely flawed and vulnerable and unlikable in so many ways, and yet I am the most compelled by her because I want to know why she is the way she is. I remember my dean once telling me, "We admire a perfect woman. We love an imperfect one." Amy Raye is so completely imperfect, so completely risky, that I adore her.

How was writing for adults different from your young adult novels?

I never thought of myself as a young adult writer. I simply wrote the stories that came to me. However, I believe the age of each of the protagonists had to do with different situations in my life, places where I was stuck emotionally. The novels were a way for me to work through those places and emerge on new ground. I used to tell people I wrote Love, Cajun Style while I was going through my divorce because I couldn't afford therapy at the time; I wanted to write something funny because I wanted to make myself laugh. I wanted to feel better. Breaking Wild was a completely different experience for me. I wrote the majority of the novel after emerging from a long space of grief after the death of my husband. It was with this novel that something broke free. The process became a way of being, imaginative and prayerful, rather than a means to work through something and get to someplace else.

What's next?

I spent this past spring in Montana and Washington conducting physical research for my next novel. As with Breaking Wild, it will be a story of psychological intrigue and suspense. It is also a love story, told from the point of view of a shy, yet strong, female character--a conservationist working in the wilderness, who in her 30s falls in love for the first time. Once again, I find myself intoxicated with the experience. I have so many more stories to write. It is the freest I have ever felt. --Julia Jenkins

Powered by: Xtenit