My Heart Is a Mountain: a book review

I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I’d like. I hardly write fiction at all anymore. My natural inclination is to read my weekly and monthly magazines and journals, stay current with my favorite blog sites, and then dive into nonfiction. So when I do take the time to read fiction, it had better be good.

My latest foray into fiction was good. 

And so let me recommend My Heart Is a Mountain: Tales of Magic and the Land, by Catherine Holm.

My Heart is a Mountain is a collection of eleven short stories and one memoir piece, many of which take place in rural northern Minnesota, where the author has lived for the last fifteen years, since transplanting herself from the urban area of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The stories all share a connection to the land and a love and respect for the people who inhabit it.

I enjoyed the diverse community of characters I met in the stories, all dealing with magic and dreams, sadness and hope, and unexpected endings. One story, “Crossroads,” introduced a young Ojibwe boy, living in two worlds, “rooted in two places, each root on a different road.” I was impressed by the author’s knowledge of Native culture and wondered if she herself had a Native background that enabled her to write so clearly with such insight. “I am not Native American,” she wrote to me. “I’ve done a lot of reading, and we live near a reservation.”

In the title story, “My Heart Is a Mountain,” the narrator visits her mother, who is waiting to die of cancer in her mountain cabin, surrounded by encroaching civilization, including a condo that is eating up the homes and community that once existed. She learns that the former next door neighbor lost his home to eminent domain, then was put into a nursing home where he hung himself two days before. “Take a man’s land and he’s got nothing,” her mother says. As the mother’s thoughts and words begin to focus on her impending death, she thinks of her other daughter, Sylvia, ten years younger than the narrator, who died at age three and who the mother now is trying to see while still alive and obviously looking forward to seeing in death:

Ma has seen spirits.

“Where’s Sylvia?” she whispers. She blinks at me and turns away, glowering….

“Ma,” I say, “Sylvia is dead.”

“She’s alive,” Ma whispers. “I hear her…. Listen.”

My ears strain, reaching for the whisper of a three-year-old sister’s voice, looking for the glint of blonde hair or a perfect, smooth leg.

“She’s there,” whispers Ma, “but she won’t come to me.”

The bulldozer rattles the porch windows.

This story showed the quiet, desperate bond between residents and their land that can’t be broken until the residents themselves are broken, and the eternal bond between mother and child that even death can’t separate. In fact, though the story talks a lot about death, death in this context seemed to represent growth more so than finality. “As death gets closer, Ma looks younger. Eyebrows arch, delicate and thin. The skin has translucence.”

In “The Day Jaded Came to Town,” the community members struggle to remain feeling after the rape-murder-disappearance of a friend. The narrator himself struggles to keep looking. There the lesson seemed to be healing through artistic expression, a lesson the narrator discovers only after confronting his own struggle to not give up the search.

But the most interesting story to me was the opening one, “Disappearing Men,” about the husband who disappears into his own world of rugged men in a rustic cabin, eating meat, potatoes, and eggs while his wife remains rooted in the real world, mystified by her husband’s regular disappearances until she sits on his chair and disappears into her own space. There she discovers piano music she wrote years before and fumbles to recall how to play before returning to the world she shares with her husband. The ending is a satisfying surprise that, for the first time, brings the husband into the wife’s world.

Do the stories come from the author’s experience or the experience of folks she knows?

“Truthfully, I’m not sure,” she wrote to me. “It’s a pretty unconscious process for me when I write. I try to get out of my way, though probably many of my own experiences, and experiences of many of the people I meet, influence my writing in some way. Probably the most autobiographical story is ‘Transcendence’; I was a church choir director for awhile. Many of the other stories are completely concocted, solely from the imagination. But I try not to think about what I’m doing when I write. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t go to college for writing. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to dissect it.”

Catherine Holm is an excellent writer. Her stories grab the imagination and hold on to it. The slim volume made for me one day’s good read. I look forward to more books by her.

But you don’t have to wait for her second book if you haven’t yet read her first book. You can find it at www.catherineholm.com.

My Heart Is a Mountain: Tales of Magic and the Land is published by Holy Cow! Press, a small press publisher from Duluth, Minnesota. The owner, Catherine writes, is “a man who seems to have a balanced sense of both the bottom line and artistic values–and who very quietly moves mountains and gets a lot done. He is a poet himself and has done a lot with his press to promote Midwestern literary work.”

For another review of My Heart Is a Mountain, go here.