In the first pages of Site Fidelity, Claire Boyles’s character, Norah, comments on her father’s speech. After having a stroke, he mistakenly calls her “Vera.” The speech pathologist has put up a chart on their fridge. Boyles writes, “I could see the whole consonant chart—the nasals and the alveolars, the voiced and the voiceless.” Boyles’s book, a collection of stories about people interacting with western landscapes, can be summed up in this opposition: the voiced and the voiceless. Site Fidelity is, at its heart, stories about speaking humans and the non-speaking, non-human world that surrounds them.
The stories operate as stand alone, singular narratives, but also as an intertwined whole. Characters appear in one and then pop up again in another, like Sister Agnes Mary, who protests the fracking site near a playground. Boyles allows the nun to become the voice of the silent environment: the poisoned water, the children who will play fifty yards from the oil site, the contaminated air. Sister Agnes Mary, her sister, Mano and their third sister, Ruth, appear again in the story “Lost Gun, $1,000 Reward, No Questions.” The narrator, Charley, sells hybrid hydraulic brake systems. He comments that “[l]ower fuel efficiency could mean that Los Angeles, San Francisco, even Reno may someday rival Delhi and Beijing for unavailable air quality, for nature-deprived children with asthma and poor muscle tone”. Here, we see an eco-conscious legacy is created. Sister Mary Agnes has influenced her nephew. We are reminded that global warming threatens the next generation more severely than our own.
Site Fidelity is a work of eco-fiction. According to Lawrence Buell, eco-fiction shows nature as a process (rather than as a stagnant background) and reframes the narrative to make humans a part of the environment, rather than a dominant factor. Boyles plays with these two aspects of the genre marvelously. In “Flood Stories, ” Big Thompson River “swelled with monsoon rain” and a mother carries her infant daughter to safety. Boyles deftly uses the flood as a plot device and as a metaphor, allowing it to simultaneously advance the emotional plot:
There are some floods to suck you under, carry you away, and some floods that trap you in a way of thinking. Mom has both her feet in molasses, stuck forever with the version she tells herself, which is that she did everything she could to protect me, that she was always carrying me up some tree, that I was always, always, resisting her.
These are stories not just of the environment, but humans and one another. Boyles is writing about the ecosystems that form our lives. The natural events that shape us. She asserts: the land matters. If Aldo Leopard asks us to have a Land Ethic and be morally responsible to the earth, Claire Boyles is offering us multi-faceted viewpoints that show how our environments change us. We get trapped in floods. We make our way up trees. We save and destroy one another. Nature is not outside of us. We are inside of it. And it is inside of us.
In the story, “Man Camp,” we are introduced to men who work near an oil site—driving water trucks for the rigs. Boyles writes beautifully:
The men seemed quieter at night, presumably due to the human habits of their lives before the camp, but there were always men coming in and men heading out, a twenty-four hour stream of going to work and getting off work, sleeping and waking, being indoors and being outdoors.
This story beckons a Steinbeckian view of the environment: the intersection of land and money. Like The Grapes of Wrath humans here want to work off the land, even if that means destroying it. Boyles writes this from a focalization that inhabits the guilt associated with working for an oil company: “It was an unspoken rule that the rigs should be hidden as much as possible—not, of course, that the company had anything to hide…. Joe wondered whose view they were worrying about”. My interpretation is that Joe was worried about God’s view. Perhaps a force like Sister Mary Agnes: somewhere between divine nature and religion. He is conscious of a small God which seeks to preserve what we have left.
In my favorite story, “Chickens,” the narrator is hiding her hens from the government. Agents kill any potentially diseased bird. The narrator notices their feathers. The pattern is the same as the mountain range. She says, “Sometimes I wonder whether God repeated beauty like that everywhere on purpose, like maybe he hoped humans would learn to see and reflect it, to find a way to copy it in the things we make ourselves. God is probably so disappointed.” There is a feeling of eco-shame in the book: We should feel bad for what we have done to our environment. But there is also a sense of hope.
Site Fidelity calls on us to change. It asks us to reimagine our relationship, our duty to the landscapes of our lives. Doing so through the most ordinary of characters: state parks employees, ranchers, squatters at a sugar mill, nuns, pregnant women, mothers, and also, the animals: wild geese, fish, moose, chickens, roosters, and cows. This is a book for readers who understand that we have caused rapid weather cycling, warmer temperatures, melting ice caps, etc. This book is for the modern library. A library that does not ignore this truth, but instead embraces it.
As a writer, I often wonder if art is useful. It is books like this that assure me it can. Fiction can reflect truth back to us. We see ourselves in these characters, these environments. And, perhaps, we can also see a way forward.
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: June 15, 2021
Reviewed by Alexis David