A Memoir of a Family and a Landscape
August 2020 Indie Next List
— David Nurick, Cellar Door Books, Riverside, CA
View the List
WINNER OF THE WOMEN WRITING THE WEST WILLA LITERARY AWARD IN CREATIVE NONFICTION
“[A] shimmering memoir . . . A bittersweet tribute to home and family in breathtaking prose that will appeal to lovers of memoirs and history, as well as anyone who enjoys beautifully crafted writing.” —Library Journal, starred review
Kendra Atleework grew up in the Owens Valley of the Eastern Sierra Nevada in California, where annual rainfall averages five inches and in drought years measures closer to zero.
Her parents taught their children to thrive in this beautiful but harsh landscape prone to wildfires, blizzards, and gale-force winds. Above all, the Atleework children were raised on unconditional love and delight in the natural world. But when Kendra’s mother died when Kendra was just sixteen, her once-beloved desert world came to feel empty and hostile, as climate change, drought, and wildfires intensified. The Atleework family fell apart, even as her father tried to keep them together. Kendra escaped to Los Angeles, and then Minneapolis, land of tall trees, full lakes, water everywhere you look.
But after years of avoiding her hometown, she felt pulled back. Incorporating the fascinating history of the landscape and powerful nature writing, Miracle Country is a moving and unforgettable memoir of flight and return, emptiness and bounty, the realities of a harsh and changing climate, and the true meaning of home. For readers of Cheryl Strayed, Annie Dillard, and Rebecca Solnit, this is a breathtaking debut by a remarkable writer.
Praise For Miracle Country: A Memoir of a Family and a Landscape…
A Washington Independent Review of Books Favorite Book of 2020
“Truly something special and refreshing. Kendra Atleework’s powerful debut 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 . . . 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.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Drawing parallels between her upbringing and the region's history, [Atleework's] memoir celebrates her home and the region while lovingly portraying her family's eccentricities. Her ability to relay naturalistic majesty in exquisite detail is dynamic yet tender, resulting in captivating storytelling . . . A breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.”
“Atleework captures how the history of the landscape affects how people feel in the present in prose charged with emotion . . . Miracle Country is a beautiful read, Atleework’s prose steeped in her passion for the region and her striking observations. Even more, though, the memoir is important because it reveals Atleework’s deep understanding of the region, of a life defined by an absence, and she points us to the power in this understanding—it can be a tool to stay safe in a desert or on a cliff, a way to connect with other people, a call to counteract climate change, or, as in Atleework’s case, a reason to return home.”
“[A] shimmering memoir . . . A bittersweet tribute to home and family in breathtaking prose that will appeal to lovers of memoirs and history, as well as anyone who enjoys beautifully crafted writing.”
—Library Journal, starred review
“[A] beautiful debut . . . Atleework’s remarkable prose renders the ordinary wondrous and firmly puts this overlooked region of California onto the map.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Atleework pays tribute to the drought-ridden California desert of her childhood in this gimlet-eyed memoir . . . Nature lovers will immerse themselves in Atleework's vibrant prose and meditative musings."
“Can a book be both radiant with light and shadowy as midnight? Miracle Country can. I felt the thrill I once knew reading Annie Dillard for the first time. Kendra Atleework can really write. She flies with burning wings."
—Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels
“Kendra Atleework has written the most beautiful book about California I ever have read. The author locates the mystery and beauty of her life in the small town of Bishop, on the eastern slope of the Sierra, decades after Los Angeles has stolen the water. Her poet's prose, on every page, honors the dry land and breathes Nature to life.”
—Richard Rodriguez, author of Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography
“Miracle Country is truly some kind of miracle, combining a moving family story with deft, deeply researched history. Written from the crucible of California's water wars, combined with a family story of love and loss in the high desert Eastern Sierra Nevada, Kendra Atleework's book joins the great American accounts of the West, a step beyond Joan Didion, moving from a beloved geography into a jeopardized future. Kendra Atleework is that rare writer—capable of heart-stopping memoir while performing a work of keen observation and serious history. A work of stunning acuity and candor, essential reading, already a classic narrative.”
—Patricia Hampl, author of The Art of the Wasted Day
“A soaring homage to California and to the sparsely populated and drought-prone Eastern Sierra, where the author grew up. Blending family memoir and environmental history, Kendra Atleework conveys a fundamental truth: the places in which we live, live on—sometimes painfully—in us. This is a powerful, beautiful, and urgently important book.”
—Julie Schumacher, author of Dear Committee Members and The Shakespeare Requirement
“This eloquent narrative is both a natural history of the author's home place, a seemingly arid region, and a loving portrait of an extraordinary family. Kendra Atleework has an uncanny wisdom and a deep sense of people and their origins, and she writes like an angel.”
—Charles Baxter, author of There's Something I Want You to Do
Algonquin Books, 9781643751412, 320pp.
Publication Date: June 1, 2021
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
Would you like to host Kendra Atleework at your book club?
Kendra is offering free virtual author events for groups of eight or more. To arrange a session with your book club, bookstore, or library, please visit Atleework.com for details.
1. Every family creates its own culture, its own version of normal. What aspects of the Atleeworks resonated with your own idea of family?
2. In Miracle Country, California is presented as a land of optimism and innovation, of hope and forgetfulness, of tragedy and disaster. How does the Atleework family represent, and also differ from, the qualities of their home state?
3. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was built, and the water was taken from Owens Valley/Payahuunadu, because the people with power at the time had agreed to pursue “the greatest good for the greatest number.” The author considers what “good” means and who gets to define that. Can you think of instances when you’ve observed something being taken for granted as good that might not have been?
4. Is William Mulholland, the engineer of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a villain, or should he be forgiven for upholding the values of his time?
5. What do you picture when you think of California? How has the way you think about the desert changed after reading Miracle Country? How has this affected your ideas of California?
6. Kendra had to leave home and do her own research to learn the story of the Indigenous people of her valley, the Paiute/Nuumu. What do you know about the history and contemporary reality of Indigenous people where you live? Why do you think many people are not taught this about their own homes?
7. Kendra decides to move home to Bishop for many reasons. Which ones stood out to you the most?
8. Miracle Country is in part about living deeply in a place: committing to making it better and not just depleting it of resources and moving on. In what ways is your own home a deeply lived-in place? In what ways is it not?
9. Which family member’s story or relationship to home most resonated with you the most? Why?
10. How would you describe Kendra’s feelings about losing her mother by the time she moves back to Bishop? What are the different roles loss plays in Miracle Country? How does the author’s attitude toward the loss of her mother change by the end of the book?
11. What role does Mary Austin play in the book? How does she help us understand the place and especially the women, like Kendra and her mom, who love it?
12. What emotions and ideas about your own home did Miracle Country stir?