Karla Kuban: Marchlands

Karla Kuban

SURVEY THE TERRAIN: rolling, hard-luck Western plains dotted by sheep; barns housing heaps of living and dead animals; horses as transportation; and pickups where the horses have been killed. Cormac McCarthy could have written this book. Instead, first-time novelist Karla Kuban has, and she's invented a 15-year-old girl as the voice of this grim and beautiful landscape. Sophie is the tough daughter who gradually takes over the ranch when it becomes apparent that her parents are insane. She's well-equipped for the job: easy with the animals, able to manage the rough crew of men who work the sheep, unable to see herself in any other place.

She's also pregnant, a fact that opens the book up to some peculiar flaws. Sophie watches the ewes and lambs on the ranch die in birth and suffer complications by the hundreds, yet she avoids prenatal care and believes she'll be able to deliver her baby alone at home, like a "cavewoman." She refers constantly to her "teats," and despite her geographic and social status as a farm girl, the usage seems absurd and laughable. The farm life itself is a great educator on matters of life and death, and her naïveté in these matters is hard to accept--particularly as the outside world seeps into the story.

At first, Sophie seems only marginally interested in life beyond the ranch. The television delivers glimpses of this world, in the form of scenes from the Vietnam War where Sophie's brother is a serviceman. And Sophie learns as well from the Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones albums she buys with stolen money--although just how this farm kid has been turned on to these records (and where she finds them in the desolation of the high plains) is not clear. Worldliness also walks into town in the form of Edwina, a city girl spending the summer at her uncle's nearby ranch. Edwina wears a white patent-leather mini in a world of blue jeans and horse shit, but against reason these girls become friends. When the ranch community becomes poisonous, they run away and Sophie finally gets a good long look at the way other people live.

This might seem like a story about misfits, but Sophie would never admit that she was any such thing. She might say this is a story about figuring out where you really belong, and then staying put and making it work. So at age 16, she votes for the hard life. For her, it's the only way.

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