cover image Shelterbelt


Tricia Bauer. St. Martin's Press, $24.95 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-312-26647-9

A journey unreels within a journey in this winsome but wandering novel about a pregnant Nebraska teenager coming to terms with her brother's death. The family of high school senior Jade Engler is still mourning the drowning of her much-bullied younger brother, Benjamin, a year ago, as well as the loss of their Paradise, Neb., farm. Jade's mother has taken off; her father's become a militiaman, establishing a liaison with a vehemently pro-life girlfriend; and Jade herself is living a clich : pregnant, she is ""the ignorant country girl in trouble."" Refusing to be trapped by circumstance, Jade flees the falsely protective shelterbelt (the term denotes the barrier of trees and shrubs that protects crops) of the familiar, striking out for an au pair job in a wealthy Connecticut household, where she plans to weighs her options. There, she begins an epistolary exchange with her mother, Rexanne, about her pioneer forebears. The stories Rexanne tells inspire Jade to complete the journey her ancestors attempted long ago, traveling from the East Coast to California by train. The mystery of Benjamin's death remains tantalizingly unsolved and Jade's initial comparisons of Nebraska and Connecticut are amusing but quickly grow tiresome, what with the nobility of farm lifeDmilitiamen and allDinvariably winning out against the vacuity of the wealthy. Worse, Rexanne's letters, written in neutral documentary form, afford all the interest of perusing a stranger's genealogical research. It's as if two different stories got somehow shackled togetherDone a contemporary teen pregnancy tale, the other a saga of wagons westDand never mesh effectively. Bauer (Boondocking; Hollywood & Hardwood) does write with verve and grace, however, managing to make Jade's plight compelling despite all the narrative detours. (Oct.)