read_warbler (read_warbler) wrote,

Track of the Cat & On the Banks of Plum Creek

A two-book post today, both of which qualify for my American states challenge. First up Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr, recommended by taverymate a couple of posts ago.

Anna Pigeon is a park ranger with the National Park Service in the USA. Her current post is in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the borders of western Texas and New Mexico. Anna is out patroling one day when she comes upon a body in a very inaccessible part of the park. The body is another female park ranger and it looks like she's been mauled to death by a cougar. Anna's boss seems happy to accept this verdict and later a big cat is 'dispatched'. Anna is furious at this premature killing and begins to investigate more closely. She finds that the cat prints that were around the body are all wrong and other things are also not right, why would the dead woman have gone so far without water for instance?

The problem is, no one wants to hear that this could have been murder. They all think Anna's mistaken and ought to give it up. But it's clear, after a while, that the culprit, if there is one, is probably another park ranger. Unknowingly, Anna is putting herself into extreme danger, especially when she's out alone in the mountains...

Oh wow. I finished this book some days ago and still can't get it out of my head. It had everything. Firstly, the sense of place was amazing. The author describes the mountains, the terrain, the atmosphere, the heat, wonderfully. You're there with Anna. Well I was. Stunning, just stunning. It made me want to visit the area, except that I'm probably too decrepit (bad knees and arthritis) to enjoy it the way it should be enjoyed, ie. by getting out and walking. As I said in my previous post, I didn't know about this national park, in fact I know little about Texas as a whole other than it used to belong to Mexico. I need to put that right...

Leaving aside the sense of place - which to be honest is reason *enough* to read this book - everything else about the story was just right too. Anna is a thoroughly interesting main character. She lost her husband a while ago (I didn't catch how long) and is clearly still grieving. She has a boyfriend but he senses that Anna is still in love with her dead husband. Anna herself drinks a little too much but it's not hard to understand why. I liked her relationship with her sister in New York and hope we actually get to meet her in a future book.

The plot was also excellent. Truthfully, I would have to say, 'thrilling' and I don't use that word lightly, in fact I never use it. Things happen to Anna that had me on the edge of my seat. Not only that, the way one person dies literally had me sitting in my chair with my hand over my mouth. Oh, God. I had my suspicions who the murderer was but really I didn't know the who or the why for certain until the end. And I never mind knowing who did it anyway because, for me personally, the how and the why is often far more interesting.

To sum up: wonderful. Thank you so much to taverymate, I'm going to be eternally grateful as I read my way through the 15 or so books. In fact, book 2 is on reserve at the library right now. They only have three or four so I'll be buying the rest... I thought I could get them for my Kindle but annoyingly Amazon only has that first book available in that mode. Never mind, I will *have* to read them so how I get hold of them is irrelevant.

Next up, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Ma and Pa Ingalls and the three girls, Laura, Mary and Carrie are on the move again. The danger from Native Indians in Kansas was too much so they head away from there to Minnesota. The place where they decide to settle is called Plum Creek and is once again prairie-land. At first they live in a dug-out under a hill but Pa, borrowing against the prospect of a good wheat crop next summer, builds a lovely log-cabin.

This time they are only a couple of miles from a town and Laura gets a shock when she's told that her and Mary can go to school. A shock because although Mary can read and add up, she can't. Most of the children at school are friendly but Laura despises Nellie, the arrogant daughter of the store-keeper who is spoilt rotten and scornful of Laura's humble 'country' background.

Things take a turn for the worse when Pa has to leave home to go east to find work. Ma is left with the children in the midst of a terrible winter and they most cope or perish.

You can see Plum Creek on the Walnut Grove website here: Plum Creek. It looks idyllic, and would be now, but life was a great deal more dangerous and less predictable back then than it is for us now. We think of these books as cosy - well I did - but the harsh realities of life are actually more to the fore in this book than in the previous two. Things take a real turn for the worse when something very unpredictable happens to the Ingalls' wheat crop. They have debts and there is nothing for it but for the father to go and find work. And he has to walk several hundred miles in worn-out shoes because he's given the three dollars for new ones to the minister for the church bell fund! Life is incredibly hard. Laura and Mary have to stop going to school for fear they'll wear out their shoes and anyway, Ma can't be left alone with young Carrie, she needs help.

There are of course compensations. There is a very strong sense of community and neighbours are always there if help is needed. There's a lovely scene towards the end where it's Christmas and the church is full of gifts from a surprising source. And family is all. Laura adores her father to distraction and even though she finds it hard to be quite as selfless as Mary, family is definitely the most important part of her life.

I can't believe how much I'm loving this series of children's books. Although they're not perhaps as hard hitting as adult books on the same theme, there is real hardship and Laura Ingalls Wilder in no way shrank from telling it like it was, whether her audience were children or not. If you've never read this series you really, really should.
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