Friday, November 21, 2014

Ascend: The Mountain Story a novel by Lori Lansens

The Mountain Story is an exciting tale of people with initially independent perceptions brought together by a common motivation, the desire for freedom from the past. Determined by a variety circumstances to search restlessly for escape from lives of reaction rather than meaningful action, Wolf, Byrd, Nora, Bridget, and Vonn are drawn by their need for peace to a mountain rising from a desert floor. Wolf, a teenager brought to California from Michigan by his ne’er-do-well father, narrates the story via a letter he is writing later in life to his son describing his magic mountain first as a physical challenge, then as a psychological dilemma. Like Hans Castorp writing in his journal in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Wolf, shows himself to be a na├»ve but sensitive and accurate observer of the mountain and the behavior of the 4 people who will share his fate.

When he first arrived in California, Wolf was passive, following and learning from his friend Byrd, a local California resident, who has developed a good knowledge of the mountain during his life. Then, the reader follows 18 year old Wolf as he rides up the face of the mountain in a sky tram in a state of depression. Alone because Byrd has had an “accident,” Wolf encounters Nora, Bridget, and Vonn riding up in the same tram. Not concerned about the afternoon start of their adventure, the four strangers find a common experience “off trail,” lost on the mountain with darkness closing in quickly. Wolf reluctantly takes a leadership role as the only male but with limited knowledge of the dangerous terrain. He is tested immediately as the party attempts to return to the tram terminal.

The story is one of survival during which the four lost hikers must take meaningful action with limited understanding of the mountain. That dilemma causes them to live intensely by the hour, minute, and moment fully owning the rewards and consequences of their behavior. The constricted time line paradoxically allows them more time for life reviews, reflection, and insight than they ever had in the flatlands of their normal lives.

The writing provides good descriptions of physical events, and the excitement of potentially deadly situations is high. The exploration of relationships between grandmother (Nora), mother (Bridget), and daughter (Vonn) shows how generational life experience sets the stage and affects reaction times for the characters in emergencies. The reader sees more intimately how Wolf shuffles off the trappings of his early life in Michigan and understands his changes in perceptions through adult relationships with the women. The boy to man changes require that Wolf (like Hans Castorp) tries everything possible to make a commitment to descend from the mountain and keep life close rather than at arm’s distance like his inadequate father.

One observation I have is that the voice of Wolf is feminine, as if Lansens is writing about the behaviors and thoughts of a young woman. I noticed this all though the letter Wolf is writing to his son describing the events on the magic mountain. I can see this as both deliberate and accidental as the writer slips in and out of character in the context of the letter.

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