Best-selling author Garth Stein’s latest book is a multi-generational tale set in the Pacific Northwest
Seattle-based author Garth Stein would be the first to tell you that in dealing with loss and recovery, the way forward tends to backtrack through the past. In fact, he’s crisscrossed that territory through four novels, mining the world of family dynamics, fathers and sons, and spiritual awakening. Whether it’s a dog sharing wisdom gleaned from watching old race car footage on TV, a grieving mother seeking to solve the mystery of her son’s death through Tlingit folklore, or a timber family facing their own dark history, his characters remind us that the road behind shapes the road ahead.
After working as a documentary filmmaker, a playwright and a teacher, Stein was drawn into fiction, taking inspiration for his most popular novel from his experience as an amateur race-car driver, a Billy Collins poem told from a dog’s point of view, and a Mongolian documentary about the belief that the next incarnation for a dog is as a man. Maybe you’ve heard of the resulting book: The Art of Racing in the Rain. If you’ve read the story of Enzo the dog and his relationship with his human family, you’re one in over four million other readers, and if you’ve read it in Chinese, that’s one of the 35 languages in which it was printed. The novel made a dent in the New York Times bestseller list for three years, and has given birth to a children’s version as well as a film adaptation. The success of the book was a game-changer, offering Stein freedom but also demands. “It’s like the Seattle Seahawks winning the Super Bowl,” he says. “You’re like, ‘Wow, nobody expected them to do that,’ and then it’s, “What else you got?”
In his new novel A Sudden Light, Stein shows us, unfolding an epic Pacific Northwest history that digs deep into the intimate workings of the Riddell family. We meet them as they reacquaint themselves with each other after many years apart. Their wary reunion takes place in their dilapidated homestead, a mansion called Riddell House, built with the bitter spoils and fallen trees of the timber industry. The environmental damage has been done and the money is long gone, but it sits in ghostly reminder of a storied past, high upon a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. Fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell has come here with his father, Jones, whose intention is to join his sister in convincing their ailing father to move into a nursing home and allow them to sell the house and develop the property. Unfortunately, the resident ghosts are all too real, and they aren’t keen on selling. Trevor’s relentless curiosity pulls his family’s hidden history into the light, where he wrestles with the tragic secrets and spiritual truths that have defined it for generations.
“Our past always informs our future,” says Stein, “but sometimes it’s hard to understand how deep that is. We don’t see things the way they are, we see things the way we are.” Indeed, Trevor’s journey gives voice to the wide range of Stein’s own interests in everything from national parks to spiritualism, Seattle history, LGBT issues, environmental preservation, and above all (literally) trees.
Some of the most beautiful and evocative scenes in A Sudden Light follow its characters as they climb to the highest branches of the world’s greatest giants. Stein describes this vantage point so well because he’s been there. In a recent interview, he talked about his experience. “I’ve done some tree climbing with my guy Tim Kovar. He takes me up into 200-foot tall trees. Just the other week we climbed an 800-year-old redwood in California, and when you get to the top you’re just there. We’re on tree time. Dangling from a rope at the top of this tree, your whole pace and tempo shifts. That’s where you find your connection to spirituality, nature, and the world.” I’ve never climbed a 200-foot redwood tree, but I’m lucky enough to live in their neighborhood, and every time I get the chance to stare up into their ethereal canopy, I know just what he means.
INFO: 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 21, Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. 423-0900. Free.