on August 15, 2010
For a book with less than 250 pages, L.E. Kimball's first novel, A Good High Place, is an extremely ambitious one, both in its scope and its varying points-of-view. Set in Elk Rapids, Michigan, it covers a period of a hundred years or more, from the early days of the twentieth century nearly all the way up to present day. And there are numerous "voices" to be heard; the foremost of these is Luella Sharp, essentially the protagonist. Then there is her Native American friend and sometime nemesis, Kachina. Luella's steamboat pilot father, Ira "Cap" Sharp, also takes a brief turn, as does an unnamed narrator, whose identity quickly becomes clear. In fact there is an overall omniscient narrator who holds it all together. Other characters also hold sway from time to time, particularly Keane Mulcahey, who forms the apex of a love triangle with Luella and Kachina. Interestingly enough there is another triangle hinted at from an even earlier time, formed by Luella's parents and her father's older brother, Uncle George. Cap himself is a kind of tragic soul, become rudderless and vague after his wife, Emma, dies following childbirth. George, full of regret at his failure to bring a doctor in time, sinks gradually into alcoholism and despair. Much of this is merely hinted at, but Kimball is good at what she does, and a careful reader will be able to piece together this family tragedy, the details of which unfold at a measured pace, placed strategically here and there throughout the narrative, which shifts back and forth in time, from 1962 back to 1905 or 1917, then back to the sixties and beyond. If it sounds confusing, well, it's not, actually. Kimball manages this disjointed chronology quite admirably. You just have to be patient. Everything becomes clear - or mostly clear - by the book's end.
And this is not simply a family saga of Michigan's early settlers. There is some of that certainly, but Kimball also looks at larger themes, like the end of the riverboat era in northern Michigan, due to the development of the automobile and networks of roads, as well as privately owned motor launches. She touches too on the mindless clear-cutting of Michigan's vast pine forests and the subsequent demise of the lumber industry and the disappearance of many small towns and villages that supported it. But most importantly she deals with the conflicts between the white and the red people of the region. The abuses and indignities Native Americans were forced to endure are subtly - and sometimes not so subtly - touched on here, as is the systematic dismantling of much of the native culture, as children are sent away to special "Indian" schools in places like Mount Pleasant, where their hair is cut and their customs and language are also shorn away. Kachina has resisted all of this and struggles to not only retain her heritage, but to become a healer and a teacher of native ways. Luella, who leaves Elk Rapids, to study at the University of Michigan, tries for much of her life to ignore this collision of cultures, and worse, she chooses not to recognize an even darker mystery, one which forms the core of the nearly life-long enmity between the two women.
The title, A Good High Place, is significant in several ways. It is first hinted at in an essay from Emerson which Luella reads at a church service, "Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view." Later on, high places are noted as locations where piles of rocks are often placed as direction markers or guideposts, saying "this way; go this way." And finally, high places are often used as final resting places. Keane is buried "on a hill" under a grove of maples - a good high place visited by both Kachina and Luella, who have finally made their peace with each other.
As regional historical fiction, A Good High Place is a major accomplishment that should take a permanent place on Michigan's literary map. But Kimball has pulled off a lot more in this novel. She has created a beguiling blend of fact and fiction, a magical mix of the spiritual and the physical. Quietly lyrical, bewitchingly beautiful, this is simply fine writing. Perhaps, taking her cue from Emerson, Kimball was attempting to do much more here than simply tell a story. Maybe she was saying a prayer. - Tim Bazzett, author of the REED CITY BOY trilogy