UtahLit: Life and death at the heart of the Western novel ‘Stars Go Blue’
By Ellen Fagg Weist
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jul 17 2014 03:35PM
Since she moved home to Northern Colorado’s Pleasant Valley, writer Laura Pritchett regularly walks with her father on the family ranch. "We both love to walk and we whistle a lot," she says. "He whistles ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Cool Clear Water.’ "
Whistling and humming are the main ways the pair communicate, because Jim, her rancher-geneticist father, who is 82, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 13 years ago. Now he doesn’t recognize his daughter. "Sometimes he says: ‘You’re that writer, aren’t you?’ "
Her father and his illness are the inspiration for "Stars Go Blue," a novel about Ben and Renny Cross, a ranching family patriarch and matriarch. The characters’ stories were launched in Pritchett’s first collection of stories, "Hell’s Bottom, Colorado," published in 2001, which won the PEN USA Award for Fiction.
The novel will be the focus of The Tribune’s July Utah Lit book club conversation, which will take place at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday, July 23, at sltrib.com.
Over the years, the writer came to realize that Ben and Renny weren’t done talking, yet she worried about the problem of the novel, the craft issues that come along with rendering a character who is facing onrushing dementia.
"I started out knowing it would be both the challenge and the gift of the book, to try to see the world through someone who has a diminished capacity for language, but still someone very much in touch with his hopes and fears," Pritchett says. "Ben is wise in heart, but diminished in language, while Renny has the language, but has been diminished in heart."
Ben’s essence as a rancher is essential to the story, experience gained over a lifetime of birthing things and killing things. He is a character with life and death on his mind.
Words dammed up • Despite its subject matter, the paradox is that "Stars Go Blue" is a tough novel with an uplifting ending. It’s a Western story told in spare language of authentically complicated characters, and that craft is tied to the kind of strong engine of story that’s often rare in literary fiction, says Dan Smetanka, executive editor at Counterpoint Press.
In alternating chapters, Ben and Renny reveal the conflicts that prompted them to set up living quarters at opposite ends of their ranch. Renny is worn out from her hard life, currently irritated about taking care of a man who forgets to put on his pants or forgets her name. Ben remembers the social worker saying he shouldn’t feel bad about the disease, but he can’t remember the word Alzheimer’s. "Deeper still, he has clarified that he’s allowed the terror and the claustrophobia of wanting to say words that are dammed up inside," Pritchett writes.
In the middle of a harsh winter, the Cross family is rocked by the news of the prison release of the abusive husband who killed their daughter Rachel years earlier. In a snowstorm, Ben boards a bus with a vague plan for closure, his pockets stuffed with notes of things to remember, like his name. Renny faces her own death when she is caught in the same storm after carelessly driving to find her husband.
In a coda, another narrator takes over the story, and the shift in perspective makes a reader reconsider what has happened.
"Stars Go Blue" is a book about family, about Alzheimer’s, about caretaking, about community, about ranching life and, at its core, about living and dying. It tells an epic story with the language of brevity, each of its four sections influenced by the Shakespeare quotes that serve as epigraphs. "The big message of the novel is that even in your darkest times, even when you think you’re alone, you’re not," Smetanka says.
The book, released last month, has already sold out its first printing, thanks to starred pre-publication reviews in Booklist and LibraryJournal, as well as endorsements from writers such as Rick Bass, Claire Davis and Kent Haruf, and mentions in Real Simple and More magazines. The novel garnered more attention on Pritchett’s five-state indie bookstore tour, which included a stop at The King’s English Bookshop.
"I picture the novel as a cupped palm holding Ben and Renny’s relationship in its hand," Pritchett says.
A place-based life • At age 7, Laura Pritchett had already claimed her vocation. "I want to be a riter," she wrote in her first diary, adding: "Just like Laura Ingalls Wilder."
Pritchett, 43, was raised in a family of six boys and three girls on a small working ranch near Fort Collins. Her father was a genetics professor and rancher, while her mother collected animals of all sorts: pet raccoons, pet pigeons, pet peacocks. "It was a life full of births and deaths and unique relationships," she says, joking that she spent much of her childhood outside reading, trying to escape the chaos of her large family.
She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Colorado State University before receiving a Ph.D. in contemporary American literature from Purdue University, with a focus on contemporary ranch literature. In Indiana, Pritchett realized she couldn’t take being away from the West any longer. "I’m very place-based in my life, and my writing is very place-based," she says.
Now she lives near the ranch where she was raised with her own menagerie. On the morning of our interview, she and her teenage son and daughter were tending a baby dove as well as a chicken who had been attacked by a fox.
Her previous novel, 2007’s "Sky Bridge," won a WILLA award for fiction. Pritchett is the editor of three anthologies, and her essays and stories have been widely published. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing classes and is on the faculty for Pacific University’s MFA low-residency program.
She considers "Stars Go Blue" a love story. "If ever there was a book when I tried to pay attention to the language, every single word, this was it," Pritchett says. "That was a gift from my father. He would start to invent words, and in that way, he became a poet, this geneticist, a rancher who had never read poetry in his life."