by Pamela Steele
In her debut novel, Greasewood Creek, Pamela Steele draws heavily from the elements of poetry even as she weaves an emotionally complex story. The short chapters feel like stanzas. The phrases and descriptions linger with the reader, and invite repeated readings. The structure is spare and delicate: time wafts from the present to the past and back again in flashes of memories. Seemingly insignificant moments are distilled to show the normalcy of life, the pain around the edges of tragedy. And the tragedies—many of them spiraling outward from a single event, the death of the protagonist’s sister, Jean Ann—are told in cool, quiet detail without tumbling to sentimentality or melodrama. Steele writes in images, brushstrokes. Her sentences are careful and deft, and though she clearly sees language through the lens of poetry, she rescues the prose from becoming too obtuse or imagistic by allowing the language to reflect the heartbreaking events of the story and to mirror the difficulty with which the characters recall their collective past. It is a story told through the outstretched fingers of a shielding hand, a novel written from around the protective corner of a doorframe. “Tell it slant” Emily Dickinson once wrote.
The opening of Greasewood Creek is an example of Steele’s “slant” telling, carving the story out of negative space—telling a story by what isn’t there:
The air still holds the shape of the house. August light pushes through cottonwood limbs—no more than air themselves—shimmering off ghost windows. Weed-shot grass seeps from the empty pasture, scabs over the ground where the house once sat, surrounds a shard of foundation.
The elements of the novel are all in play: the weeds, shards, delicate limbs, and heartbreaking absence.
In some ways, Greasewood Creek resembles Southern literature, with its emphasis on language, family, and rural America, and perhaps, with the story’s genesis in West Virginia, that echo is intentional. But in many ways, this is a book of the West, of the hard life of rural Eastern Oregon, and the pain and redemption of life on the edges of a reservation. The protagonist, Avery, is gritty, smart, and resourceful despite the disappointments and tragedies of her childhood—the death of her sister, her father’s abandonment, her mother’s alcoholism, her own molestation, and the death of her own baby. The redemption in the novel comes from Avery’ s quiet unraveling of her painful pa st. In a particularly beautiful moment, Avery is heavy with her pregnancy, waiting for her baby to arrive, when a hummingbird enters the house. She remembers trying to c atch them as a child. “It can’t be done” her grandmother had told her. And yet, she succeeds.
She steps into the doorway and opens her hands. The bundle lifts a few feet, levitates flies around the side of the house. She looks at her palms, half expecting a spray of the luminous dust of butterflies and moths.
A quiet moment, and yet, the accomplishment of succeeding at “what can’t be done” and the flutter of the hummingbird, and the letting go are all a part of Avery’s life—her ability to rise above, and the sadness she endures.
Though Avery’s life is marked by pain, Greasewood Creek is also a love story—the steady, deep love of Avery and her childhood boyfriend, Davis. The pattern of their relationship in the novel rescues Avery—and the reader—from relentless bleakness. There are no small moments in Greasewood Creek, or, rather, it is a novel of small moments, of quiet poetic gestures and strange visitations.
Frances Badgett is Contrary’ s fiction editor.