Book Review

Claire Boyles’s collection of short stories, Site Fidelity, seamlessly fuses the lives and struggles of ordinary people in the American West with the wider challenges of living in a natural environment stressed by climate and economic changes. Although this is a collection of short stories, Boyles chronologically follows the arc of several characters, exploring how lives intertwine with the environment people create. which in turn helps to create us.

The first story, “Ledgers,” fully illustrates Boyles’s creative goals. Norah is the grown daughter of a ranch owner who recently suffered a stroke. For years, both father and daughter protected an endangered flock of Gunnison sage-grouse just within the border of their ranch. Norah studies birds academically as an adult, and when her father grows ill, she decides to be his full-time caregiver. With the ranch sold, the uncertain status of the birds haunts her. She suspects that Henson, the new owner who lives alone with his small daughter, will not protect the birds. She is not wrong. The stark realities of land management unfold in the interactions between Norah, her father, and Henson. At first, the roles of the characters seem preordained: Norah and her father are environmentalists, dedicated to saving the habitat of the birds, while Henson holds the land as an investment to be financially exploited. But we learn that the dynamics between the three are far more complex, and the labels they appeared destined to wear fail to fully match their thoughts and actions.

In “Alto Cumulus Standing Lenticulars,” we meet a family whose members appear in many of the collection’s stories. The main character, Ruth, travels with her chronically unemployed husband while yearning to return home to Colorado. Ruth struggles to make money, even as her husband does not allow her to work. She takes a secret job cleaning bathrooms at a local national park to make ends meet. As her marriage falls apart, her sister, a nun, gives her a Saint Christopher medal, praying to this saint of travelers that she may finally journey back home.

This story, like others in this collection, reflects the toll that the American West historically takes on women. Ruth appreciates the robust beauty of the desert but yearns for the mountains. Nearly all the characters in this collection are in flux, unable to find a place to rest. This common theme in our national literature—that Americans desire a home, but are pathologically rootless—plays out even as Ruth yearns for an ancestor from the heavens to lean down and tell her if her choices are correct. In this world, people are unmoored from the past and lost in the present.

In “Early Warning Systems,” Boyles contrasts a fish kill event with the life and crumbling marriage of Mano, another reoccurring character. The fish kill, her relationship with her husband, and her affair with her boss all suggest a fundamental lack of honesty in the way men not only relate to women, but also how they relate to nature. Mano’s husband cheats on her, and she cheats in turn out of a sense of duty, as if to check his infidelity with her own. In this world of domestic secrets, her boss keeps the details of the fish kill event from the community to avoid jeopardizing jobs. Mano comes to the unsettling conclusion that her marriage will end because she and her husband no longer care about its fate, just as the fish in the creek will die from a similar lack of concern. She concludes that we live in a way that ignores many ugly facts about the world, and that we exhibit a deadly indifference to the damage done by our personal and natural relationships.

But Boyles further suggests that even in harmonious relationships, forces beyond our control seek to pull us apart. This is a theme of “The Best Response to Fear,” the fourth story in the collection. Amy and Bobby Jackson are living in crumbling, former industrial buildings owned by Amy’s parents. Although the newspaper they use to light a fire explains that the recession is over, this is not the case for the couple. Bobby, a mechanic, is out of work, while Amy is underemployed. Like many of the female characters in this collection, Amy finds comfort in the vast landscapes of the American West, but her sense of home is impaired by poverty and uncertainty. The couple eats rabbits they snare to supplement their food, and Amy sees the ghosts of past workers in the abandoned factory they call home, men with lined faces who swept the floor, and men stacking beet crates arriving with their harvest and hoping to God that the mill would pay them a fair price. Here, workers in the past and present all struggle with the nightmare of exploitation.

In “Sister Agnes Mary in the Spring of 2012,” a nun commits an act of vandalism to stop fracking in the field behind the playground of her parochial school. At town meetings about fracking, she quickly becomes a pariah as she speaks out against endangering children. She was the schoolteacher of many of the men who are in favor of fracking, and she wonders how, despite her attempts, she so utterly failed to instill in them a sense of respect for God’s creation. Another story about fracking, “Man Camp,” examines the very men who work this dangerous and polluting job. They feel they have no other opportunities, either because there are no jobs, or because they are older and wish to reinvent themselves in a system that offers few choices. Boyles points out that the American West—with its cycles of boom and bust in gold, oil, and natural gas—commodifies men, using them until they are no longer needed.

In “Natural Resource Management,” Leah fights hard against her male colleagues to both protect and finish a reclamation project, while a massive flood threatens years of work. She is also a single mother, and her personal life is sinking as fast as her reclamation project. But, though the project is destroyed, a male foe becomes an unexpected accomplice in trying to save her work—hinting that perhaps cooperation between genders is possible both in the management of our personal and natural worlds.

Boyles has written stories of surprising range, while maintaining a focus on how human beings—particularly men—are imperiling our planet through careless exploitation and short-term economic goals. She also deftly marshals a number of themes we traditionally find in literature about the American West: its great beauty contrasting with its harsh and demanding conditions, and its boom-and-bust cycles that destroy communities as fast as they create them. Americans frequently see the West as a place to start over or to shed an identity that is no longer working in exchange for a better and broader life. But Boyles suggests that we need to reexamine the execution of this version of the American Dream, as it frequently crashes on the hard rocks of reality, damaging both the people who seek fresh ground and the land on which they seek new meaning.

With these stories and themes, Boyles suggests that we are all trapped in a world that men both shamelessly exploit and control for profit, but she also hints that the very same world is moving beyond our ability to control it and has the potential to destroy us. In the end, Boyles advocates, we are connected to our environments in ways we do not fully understand, and for every gain we make, there can be untallied losses. Any wisdom gained by the characters in this collection is mainly gathered by women, and their knowledge is hard-won. And yet, despite a gripping sense of a world out of joint, Boyles never completely gives up hope that we can work to heal both our human and natural world, and offers hints of reconciliations and resolutions that leave the reader both thoughtful and challenged.

About the Reviewer

Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Trumansburg, New York with his wife and two children. His book of nonfiction prose, fiction, and poetry, The Torah Sutras, was published by Albion-Andalus Books in 2019.