How do I even start to write a book review of a novel written by one of my all-time heroes?
Murry Taylor isn't just my role model because he wrote the bestselling Jumping Fire (published by Harcourt in 2000), a memoir of his experiences as a smokejumper. He's also my hero because when he retired he was the oldest smokejumper ever in U.S. history.
Taylor jumped out of airplanes into forest fires until he was 56 years old. That's right -- 56.
Now I was a forest firefighter myself. (I was never a smokejumper, but rather worked on an elite, Type-1 Hotshot crew. In the fire hierarchy of toughness, Hotshots sit directly below smokejumpers). And of course -- like Taylor -- I'm a writer; I have a double respect for the man who both endured the rigors of fighting fire until his mid-fifties and wrote a riveting book about his life on the fireline.
So it was with trepidation that I began to read Taylor's new novel The Rhythm of Leaves. Taylor has proven himself as an athlete and smokejumper, as well as a memoirist. He looms large in the collective psyche of wildland firefighters and other adventurers. To expect him to be a talented novelist as well seemed a bit too much to ask. And yet, I did not want to be disappointed.
And I was pleasantly surprised to find The Rhythm of Leaves to be anything but a letdown. Unlike Taylor's memoir, his debut novel doesn't tell a story of adventurous men doing dangerous things. Rather it focuses on the way American involvement in war causes damage and anguish to U.S. citizens that far outlasts the casualties and harm of actual combat.
The novel focuses on the complexities of human relationships -- both between family members and in a community. It tells the story of a pastor named Clara who returns home from Alaska to her small hometown on Colorado's Front Range with her teenage son Joel. She moves in with her mother and father, a Vietnam veteran still haunted by seeing many fellow soldiers killed in action. When Clara begins to hold peace meetings at her church she immediately bumps up against her father's desire to support the troops in Iraq, and against the owner of the local paper, who finds her actions unpatriotic.
The book isn't devoid of hints of Taylor's past as a forest firefighter. Clara's love interest, a retired smokejumper named Paul, doesn't hesitate to recount old fire stories and tells Clara that smokejumpers live life the way it's meant to be lived -- as an adventure.
But most of the book's characters -- while still close to and often in communion with nature -- live more settled lives than that of a smokejumper. The reader quickly becomes acquainted with -- and fond of -- the small town's cast of local characters who gather at a diner every morning to drink coffee and discuss recent gossip and events. But as tension mounts between the town's fervent patriots and those eager to imagine and discuss a world without war, the sleepy little community erupts in violence.
Taylor's writing is perhaps strongest when he writes of the natural beauty of the mountains and streams of the Front Range, but he's also skilled at articulating the philosophical and political beliefs of the book's various characters. The Rhythm of Leaves deftly illuminates the arguments of both those hoping for peace, those focused on supporting the president and troops, and those so damaged by war that their loyalties have been torn. The book lays out the arguments for and against America's military presence in Iraq, at the same time that it tells a riveting story of love and terrible loss on the home front.
Often beautiful, often sad, The Rhythm of Leaves illuminates the way that both war and blind patriotism can cause lasting and irrevocable harm.
And Murry Taylor, a man unafraid to take on new challenges, has proven himself a success yet again.
Mary Pauline Lowry has worked as a forest firefighter, construction worker, open water lifeguard, and advocate in the movement to end violence against women. Her novel, The Earthquake Machine will be released on Feb. 28, 2012.