One of the things I love most about the MFA program that I’m in is that it requires of me a tremendous amount of reading. Every month I have to read and write a response to three books. This requirement forces me to focus closely on how a book is written, how its essence impacts its readers and how I might learn to do the same sort of thing in my own writing.
When I applied to UAA’s low-residency MFA program I had to choose between fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I ended up choosing fiction; for me personally it is the most challenging. But I want to study all three. So in order to appease myself I have not excluded poetry or non-fiction from my reading lists.
Right now I’m working on writing a story that is about a place as much as it is about the people in it and I’ve tried to choose books to read that will aid me in this process. This month I was lucky to have stumbled upon a new book written by an Alaskan author who does this so eloquently that I feel I could read it over and over again and each time glean a new angle in my approach to writing about the way a place can influence and shape the people who reside there.
I was initially drawn to the memoir, Faith of Cranes: Finding Hope and Family in Alaska by Hank Lentfer, because of its title. Sandhill cranes return to my neighborhood outside of Homer every summer and I’ve always felt honored to share space with them. Their return every spring is one of the most hopeful things I know of. My own teenaged children, who don’t always seem terribly observant of the natural world, take notice of the cranes and are always thrilled when they first see them flying overhead at the end of every long winter. When the cranes leave each September, almost always on the 16th day of the month, it’s with mixed emotions; we’re in awe of the magic of migration and already nostalgic for the summer days that went by so quickly.
I was also drawn to the book because of the author’s name. It turns out that the author’s parents live here in Homer and are huge supporters and users of the library where I work. The nosey side of me that is always trying to make connections was eager to read the writing of Jack and Mary Lentfer’s son.
Hank Lentfer’s story is a story of coming of age, a story of finding himself trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense but most importantly it’s a story of love. Hank heartbreakingly loves the place where he lives and the wild places where he hunts deer and picks berries and harvests salmon. His story is of coming to terms with his fear of losing the land where he finds spiritual and physical sustenance. It’s also a story of love for the people who share in his connection to a place and the realization that the loss that ultimately goes hand in hand with love is beautiful and hopeful in its own right.
So many of the books that I read, even some of the great ones, are enjoyable and thought provoking in the moment of the reading. But not all of them stay with me. Faith of Cranes stands out because since I’ve read it I find myself mulling it over, considering the choices I’ve made, thinking about the ways I’d like for my own life to be more thoughtful and more closely tied to nature. And it leaves me asking important questions, a few of which are below:
- How different would the world be if all parents, before conception, considered the responsibility, the joy, the loss and the beauty of bringing a child into existence? The chapter in Lentfer’s book entitled, “Letter to an Unborn Child” was striking in its honesty and its raw expression of his fears about becoming a father in a world that is filled with war, environmental degradation and disconnection.
- How much living are we, as a culture, missing out on by buying into a consumer-driven mentality? By choosing to slow down and live with less we would be giving ourselves more opportunities to develop friendships, deepen the bonds we share with our families and have more time for self-reliance and art. We know this, and yet it is difficult to extricate our lives from the cycle of filling our days with jobs and tasks we don’t find meaningful. Why is it so hard?
- As a person who is concerned about things like climate change, wilderness preservation, clean air, clean water and the protection of habitat how do I not lose hope when the news is overwhelmingly bad on all those fronts? And along those same lines how can creativity, love and hopefulness make a difference?
If you are interested in an intimate portrayal of a life in coastal Alaska, if you love a place on this earth, if you feel a connection to cranes or any other kind of wildlife, if you appreciate a well-crafted story or if you simply would like to escape for a while into a sensual, thoughtful world, I highly recommend Faith of Cranes. And if you end up reading it, I’d love to know the questions it summoned for you. I’d also love to know what books you’ve read recently that have stuck with you, caused you to consider changes you’d maybe like to make in your own life.