Book Review: Miracle Country: A Memoir

I grew up on the outskirts of Michigan's capital city, Lansing, in the 1960s and 70s. After college I moved away and lived the "big city" life for much of my adulthood - in Denver, and New York at first, then, and mostly, in Chicago and the Chicagoland area.

But always throughout my life there was a returning. Not to Lansing, but to a place farther back in my family's history, a place that I have visited all my life - Michigan's beautiful Upper Peninsula (aka the UP). After leaving the working world my husband and I have relocated back to my paternal grandmother's hometown in the UP, to a house on a lake where my family has held property for three generations before me. This is now, and has always felt to me, like my home place.

I am telling you all of this because it's inspired by my reading of Kendra Atleework's amazing debut, her memoir Miracle Country. She writes beautifully of her home place, the Owens Valley in California's Sierra Nevadas, and of its history and the history of the state of California, and of the life of her family, and the loss of her mother when Kendra was only 16.

Her book is a superbly literary and lyrical work of creative nonfiction. Her use of language is stunningly good for a debut work, and carries the reader effortlessly through the changing focus of her story. Subjects range from the tragedy of Indian removal, the drought that threatens California's water supply, the removal of water from the Owens Valley for the sake of Los Angelenos (the greatest good for the greatest number is a recurring theme), wildfires coming down the mountains, the loss of her mother and the resulting crumbling apart of her family, her father's many careers, the eventual resolution of family matters, and her own return back home.

The California desert, the Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevadas are as much a part of her narrative as any of the characters she introduces us to. Like the region I live in now, as viewed by those outside, her home place has it's best days behind it. And yet she returns to it because she loves the area and its people. Like her father, who she says insists on going around with holes in his jeans (which would never do in the big city) and her brother, who doesn't travel far from home on the excuse that he needs to care for his dog, she realizes that she too has too much of the land in her to leave it for too long.

The miracle country of the book's title then is the Owens Valley of California. And yet, there is something in her evocation of place that is universal. I too have felt the tug of a different life from the midst of my big city surroundings, and have returned to my own home place. 

Your own idea of a home place may be tied less to geography than to family or friends. Maybe you too have returned to your home place. But if not, I hope maybe one day you will. 

Five Stars  ⭐⭐⭐⭐ for Miracle Country. I checked out the audiobook from my local library on the Libby app. The narrator, Cassandra Campbell, did an excellent job. Campbell is a prolific audiobook narrator, the voice behind works like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Where the Crawdads Sing.

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