Miracle Country by Kendra Atleework

When it comes to memoirs, there’s a certain type of narrative that publishers just can’t get enough of.

You know the one. The author came from a poor/marginalized/backwoods (read: unsophisticated) background, endured the antics of an alcoholic/abusive/drug-addicted/mentally ill family member, and finally escaped his or her situation by cleaning houses and saving up for a better future, hiking in the wilderness and finding inner peace, getting accepted to an Ivy League school or moving to freewheeling New York City.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing invalid about books like these. Everyone’s personal journey is valuable — well, mostly.

But to sit down for a few hours with a book in which the author extols the virtues of her family despite its flaws, pays homage to the (yes, very rural) place she’s called home for most of her life, and writes with hard-earned insight and candor about the very pressing issues of California’s water shortage and climate change’s toll on the planet? Now that’s truly something special and refreshing.

Kendra Atleework’s powerful debut, Miracle Country, is the rare trifecta that seamlessly blends personal narrative with historical nonfiction and highly charged, activist-style rhetoric with rarely a misstep or heavy hand.

In parallel threads, she interweaves recollections from her upbringing in small-town Swall Meadows (population 200, elevation 7,000 feet) in the Eastern Sierra with stories about the 1932 forced removal of the Paiute Indian Tribe, the region’s earliest inhabitants, and rants about William Mulholland, the man ultimately responsible for emptying the area’s lakes and streams in the 1880s to provide Los Angeles with water via his infamous aqueduct.

What you gravitate toward most will depend on your taste, though everything here deserves attention. Some of the strongest and most emotional sections of the book highlight the author’s clear reverence for her parents.

The passages describing her mother Jan’s slow decline from an autoimmune disease and the cancer that killed her — tragically coinciding with Atleework’s angst-ridden teenage years — certainly pack a wallop. (I’ll spare you the waterworks in this review; still, keep a tissue box nearby.)


Kendra Atleework, author of “Miracle Country”

But it’s the deep-hearted odes to 6-foot-8 “Pop” — his early years living in a burned-out restaurant rent-free while cycling through jobs as a hot-air balloon operator and a self-taught pilot; his seemingly endless patience with his adopted, “brown-skinned” son’s delinquency after Jan’s death; and his fierce devotion to his family and knowledge of the land — that are some of the most bittersweet and perceptive.

“(My father) knows his place among what is larger and older than he, and it is knowledge of this role, of a human as something brief and potentially joyful, that he passes to his children, the way another father might pass on a prayer,” Atleework writes.

History buffs will delight in reading about California’s early days before the drought, before the lack of jobs and affordable housing, when the land was verdant and the water flowed freely. For example, the conscientious objector in me cheered when the Owens Valley townsfolk took extreme measures to protest the pipeline’s construction in 1924. (Dynamite? It halted production briefly, so why not?)

Mostly, what stands out in Miracle Country is Atleework’s gorgeous prose matched equally by her deep-rooted sense of and appreciation for the place she has always called home. For example, the opening chapter, which chronicles the 2015 California wildfire in which only a few homes in Swall Meadows, including her family’s, survived unscathed, is both riveting and terrifying. It expertly portrays just how devastating and catastrophic an environmental disaster — and so much personal loss — can truly be.

Whether you’re in it for the emotional roller coaster or want an armchair view of an area of California not on your radar, Miracle Country works on multiple levels. It reminds us to hold our loved ones close, conserve our resources, treat the land as sacred and stop putting our collective heads in the sand when it comes to climate change. After all, Atleework writes, “when the floods and fires begin to overpower infrastructure and disaster-response resources, when the world turns strange, when we look around for a figure to lambaste on yard signs, who, besides ourselves, will we find?”

“Miracle Country”
By Kendra Atleework
Algonquin Books
(368 pages; $27.95)

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 30, 2020)

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