The human body’s vulnerability is the underlying force of two books I’ve been reading this past week. One is fiction, and the other a memoir. Each is a life-affirming testimonial, yet each also offers a world view tinged with fatalism. And both of the heroines are women of fierce spirit and tender soul.
“If Not For This” is the latest novel by Montana author Pete Fromm, a four-time winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Literary Award. And with this funny, blunt and heartbreaking book, he may be in line for yet another citation.
Maddy and Dalt are a golden couple. They meet as young river runners in Wyoming, fall for each other pretty instantly and marry on the banks of the Buffalo Fork in a hippie-dippy wedding that replaces the tired old “I do” vows with the phrase, “It is my strongest desire.” It suits them fine. They believe in their luck and their infallibility and their exceptionalism.
But then life intrudes.
The economy prompts a move to Oregon. They take a shot at going into the river running business for themselves instead of working for other people. But when Maddy is laid low with a mystery malady that saps her energy, Dalt has to handle the business on his own while she makes the rounds to the doctors.
Finally, she gets a dual diagnosis. The good news: she’s pregnant. The bad news: she has multiple sclerosis.
Narrated almost entirely by Maddy, “If Not For This” is a love story that shoots the rapids of life. She and her husband paddle together as best they can, navigating the whirlpools of parenthood, a degenerative disease and “this hideously wonderful, instructionless game.”
And in this novel, as in life, it all goes by so fast. Get yourself a box of Kleenex and don’t be surprised to find yourself crying a river.
The title, by the way, derives from lyrics in a song by Seattle-based singer/songwriter Dave Matthews
The other book , “The Way I Walk,” is a meditative set of essays. Suquamish writer Cathy Cuenin recalls the adventurous life that she and her husband Loren undertook as newlyweds who moved to Alaska, lived and worked aboard a tugboat and raised their son.
But a couple of decades later, the couple embarks on a very different adventure when Cathy is literally struck down with lymphangioleiomyomatosis – a progressive and painful disease that riddles the lungs with cysts.
The essays in the book swing back and forth in time, contrasting “then” and “now.” In her professional life, Cathy had worked as a nurse and therapist, but as a patient she develops new insights into what it means to live as fully as possible despite the limitations imposed by chronic illness. She gives poignant voice to the fears that can sometimes overwhelm.
But the inclinations that prevail in these pages are joy, gratitude and humility. “The Way I Walk” is a thoughtful and intimate memoir about living in the present.