Twenty years ago this fall I moved to the Pacific Northwest from way back east. I drove through the impossibly green and beautiful Columbia River Gorge to arrive in Portland. Folks not from Oregon seem to think the whole state’s all green and rain-soaked. But behind the Cascade Mountains, two-thirds of the state is arid. My first dozen drives east from Portland were astonishing each time as I re-encountered the dry, stark beauty behind the rain shadow.
Down in the Southeast corner of the state, human settlement is so sparse that there’s only a couple humans per square mile. This is the setting of Rosanne Parry’s 2009 novel The Heart of a Shepherd which centers on Brother, a roughly 12- year-old boy accustomed to living with two grandparents, his dad, and four older brothers. (No mom in the picture.) Ranching life is demanding, but it’s what they do. Then the dad’s reserve unit is called off to Iraq in the early days of the second Iraq war. The older brothers are away in the service, in college in Boise, and at the public boarding school for high schoolers in this remote area. So now this enormous ranch is the responsibility of Brother, his aging grandparents, and one hired hand.
This is an amazingly accomplished first novel. Short-161 pages- but meaty. (Her second, Second Fiddle, came out in 2011.) It’s always dazzling when a writer can get in the skin of other folks like Parry gets into the hearts of this almost completely male cast. It’s a great, palpable trip to a very unfamiliar world to me, even if it is Oregon. We’re with Brother as he learns how to calve in harsh conditions and as he helps deal with an enormous wildfire. Parry is a master of the dynamics of family life including pecking order and how brothers relate to each other.
The characters are beautifully drawn, including Grandpa, a Quaker pacifist from way back, whom Brother takes on in epic chess matches. And Grandma, a faithful Catholic, who’s as strong as this remote country demands. Brother himself is an altar boy at the nearest (but not-so-near) church. The depiction of faith in the family is rich and compelling.
This strikes me as being a young adult book considering its themes of loss, coming into adulthood, and finding one’s place. I listened to it on CD. It was a terrific reading by Kirby Heyborne that lasted three or four hours.
One quibble: the cover has a great Eastern Oregon background, but the hero is standing still and pensive on the cover. It seems to say, “Hey boys, this is boring. Don’t read me.” But that’s not the case. Males read on. Action and suspense lie within. Girls are multi-faceted. They’ll like it too.