ON his 18th birthday, Wilfred Truly, better known to everyone he’s ever met as Wolf, takes the tramcar up a southern California mountain with the intention of hiking off trail and leaping to his death from Angel Peak.
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His has been a life mired in tragic circumstance — his mother murdered when he was just six years old; his father, Frankie, a French-Canadian womanising, drug-addicted deadbeat — but it is recent events that have pushed him to the brink.
Shortly after leaving the tourist areas, he encounters a party of three women, the Devine family, Nola, her daughter Bridget, and her granddaughter, a girl of his own age, Vonn.
They are seeking directions to the Secret Lake, but with a fog coming down, and understanding just how treacherous the San Jacinto mountain can be, he agrees to act as their guide. It seems like the right thing to do.
Ever since they’d abandoned Mercury, Michigan some four years earlier, running from debt, dealers and the law, to take up residence in the sprawling trailer-park world of Tin Town on the slum-side of Palm Springs with Frankie’s terrible sister, Kriket, and her awful brood, Wolf has been hiking up here with his best friend, a Native American boy named Byrd. He and Byrd are naturally bonded, even sharing a birth date.
On the mountain, Wolf has learned about nature and the old ways, made spiritual connections, found happiness, freedom, and himself.
But recently, the world for him has reached a tipping point. While celebrating their shared birthday at Secret Lake with Byrd’s cousin, Lark (Wolf’s unattainable first love) and her obnoxious friend, Gisele, readying themselves for a trip on redweed tea, a notorious and much-feared hallucinogenic, tragedy struck. Now, after a bad fall, Byrd is in a coma, and not expected to recover.
Then, soon after, Frankie, driving on Halloween night while drunk and high, hit and killed two people with his speeding Gremlin, and has settled into a life imprisonment.
Things start to go wrong for the trekkers when Bridget stumbles into a beehive. In panic, they run the wrong way, career over a steep slope and find themselves trapped, with no conceivable way of getting back to the trail.
Furthermore, there seems little hope of rescue. Nola’s wrist is broken in the fall, Vonn has just flip flops, they’ve lost the rucksacks holding their supplies of food and water.
Over the next five days and bitterly cold nights, the snakes and coyotes come, and the vultures gather. Heroism, though, just like love, can take many forms.
Lori Lansens is the best-selling Canadian author of three previous novels, including the internationally successful, The Girls.
Her new offering is full of contrivances and narrative conveniences that ought to irritate but somehow don’t. Even the epistolary revelations that bookend the main story, a confession of sorts, from father to son, feel essential in their place.
Wolf’s desperate family ring with clichés, their wretchedness unrelenting, but the interactions between Wolf and Byrd, and in particular with the women on the mountain, and the slow unfurling of their characters, is beautifully measured and, in moments, genuinely moving.
Survival tales usually succeed on their ability to endure heightened states of reality, but in placing as much emphasis on the spirit as on the body, the author has built a narrative that works because of its almost-fairytale quality.
With The Mountain Story Miss Lansens has written a thoroughly compelling book, a tale of adventure, love, courage, blood ties and coming-of-age, that will not only keep the reader up late into the night but which will linger long in the mind and in the heart.
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