Jo’s Pick of the Week: Inland by Tea Obreht

Tea Obreht burst on the literary stage in 2011 with her magnificent novel, The Tiger’s Wife. She was hailed by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Fans, including me, eagerly waited for her next book.

Eight years later, Obreht’s second book is out, and the wait was worth it. Inland is a sweeping work of literary historical fiction set in the American Wild West. Lyrical and beautifully written, Inland is told through the eyes of two main characters, frontierswoman Nora and former outlaw Lurie, who must endure hardship and isolation. Eventually their lives will intersect in a most dramatic way.

Nora lives in the harsh Arizona Territory of 1893, trying to raise three boys and a female ward with her husband, Emmett. The book opens with Emmett going off looking for water, which has become almost nonexistent on their homestead. The book eloquently captures the fierce loneliness pioneer women faced, with Nora talking to her dead daughter, Evelyn, who is a constant companion throughout the novel.

While Nora has conversations with Evelyn, Lurie constantly talks to his companion, Burke the Camel. Wait, a camel in a western? Yes! Obreht incorporated the little known history of how camels were brought over from the Middle East to be used by the Army for hauling cargo. Camels were useful in the American desert for being able to travel a week without water while carrying a thousand pounds. I admit it took a bit for me to realize that Burke was indeed a camel, and not a person. (Here is an interesting article about the real Camel Corps and another about the legend of the ghost camels. The Smithsonian also wrote an article about the wild camels of the American West.)

Ghosts are woven throughout the story, perhaps as a reminder that the wild frontier is a deadly place filled with mystical legends. Even though survival on the homestead is becoming difficult, Nora doesn’t want to move because her daughter is buried there. If the family leaves, would Evelyn come along? While Nora talks to her dead daughter, she is irritated by her 17-year-old ward, Josie, who claims she is clairvoyant and can speak to the dead. Ghosts also haunt Lurie, especially the spirits of two brothers who had been like his family as a child.

Inland is a brilliant, sometimes challenging novel that is worth the time and effort. It is an example of literary fiction at its finest. Highly recommended.

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