cover image Miracle Country: A Memoir

Miracle Country: A Memoir

Kendra Atleework. Algonquin, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-61620-998-8

Essayist Atleework recalls her family roots and explores the history of California’s arid Eastern Sierras in her ambitious, beautiful debut. Nearly two centuries of conflict over land, water, and individual rights flow through parallel stories involving the region’s first inhabitants, the Paiutes indigenous peoples, and ditch digger turned public works czar William Mulholland, who, beginning in the 1880s, drained the area’s rivers and lakes to provide water to distant Los Angeles. Atleework writes of her parents—jack-of-all-trades father Robert Atlee and educator mother Jan Work—who married and settled in Swall Meadows, population 200, in Owens Valley, a once-fertile area laid waste by Mulholland’s aqueduct system. Atleework’s childhood “on this obsidian edge of California” reads as mythic, with her bedroom opening onto towering Mount Tom and Wheeler Crest, and her loving parents as everyday gods who offered protection, especially during harsh winters: “We were never quite safe; we were never quite in danger.” She writes about her mother’s cancer death when she was 16, weaving in accounts of beauty from Mary Austin, a late-19th-century Owens Valley writer captivated by the desert, as well as of Paiute centenarian Hoavadunuki, who shares with her his story of white settlers’ desecration of the land in the 1920s. Atleework’s remarkable prose renders the ordinary wondrous and firmly puts this overlooked region of California onto the map. (July)