A Staff Pick by Meli Ewing
A Series of Small Maneuvers by Eliot Treichel (Ooligan Press, 2015)
Available New in Paperback at Tsunami
Eliot Treichel will read at Tsunami Books on Saturday, January 23 at 4:00pm
Eliot Treichel’s A Series of Small Maneuvers is a sharply observed and compassionate study of grief. Fifteen-year-old Emma Mills is on a canoeing trip through the backcountry of New Mexico with her father—a trip she didn’t really want to go on in the first place—when her father is killed in a single-misstep accident. Emma is left alone in the wilderness, and she has to make her own way out—and learn to exist in a world without her father.
Treichel masters scenes of dialogue where the characters artfully avoid talking about the death of Emma’s father, as if not talking about it will make it not real. It’s a very human thing to do. Mother and daughter tiptoe around each other. Emma’s mom shows she cares by insisting Emma eat something in the diner they stop in on the way home, but Emma insists she’s not hungry. What matters always comes through in the end, and the dance around it is honest, compassionate, and beautifully written.
What I love most about this book is Emma’s authentic, vulnerable fifteen-year-old voice. She’s earnest and indifferent. She views herself as unspectacular. Upon her rescue and “reentry”, she has an urge to cut short conversations as she navigates the frontcountry, the world of humans, in the wake of her father’s absence. She tells unexpected lies, surprising both herself and the reader. She’s not an unreliable narrator, though: she tells the reader the honest truth of what she’s feeling, as much as she understands of it.
In a typically teenage way, Emma is often unimpressed—particularly by the details of nature her dad is fascinated with and tries, sometimes too aggressively, to point out to his daughter. She wants to listen to her iPod. Her dad lets her bring it in the van for the ride there, but won’t let her bring it with her once they set off on the river because he wants them to be fully immersed in nature. She’s frustrated by his obsession with the river and the birds and the trees, and his insistence on pushing through the next bend or over the next hill to see what else there is—but after he’s gone, when she’s trying to make her way alone, she knows which details he would have pointed out, and what he would have said.
In A Series of Small Maneuvers, Emma’s reminiscences create an unflinching examination of who her father was. So often we only remember the good memories of a person after they die, or we only want to remember the good. The deceased are too often reduced by those who survive them to only their flattering parts: a hero, gentle, so kind, loving, adventurous. But everyone who’s ever been alive is infinitely more complicated than that. Treichel doesn’t shy away from those complications as he shows Emma’s imaginings of her father. Emma’s father is enthusiastic and goofy. He loves the outdoors. He hates seeing his daughter shave her legs or wear makeup. There are the usual father-daughter tensions over too-short shorts. He is eager to teach, but is quickly frustrated when Emma doesn’t innately understand what he’s trying to teach her. He is aggressive and critical. He pushes her to run rapids with him that she’s not comfortable running. He thinks paying for Emma’s horse-riding—what Emma herself is passionate about, as opposed to what he is passionate about—is too expensive. Emma doesn’t reduce her father to a string of positive adjectives after he dies. Emma’s retroactive telling of her father’s story is a beautiful, honest, and complex portrait of a life.
Something Emma’s horse trainer tells her describes the reality of life in the wake of loss: “‘We’ll get as far as we can get,’ she said, ‘and then we’ll figure it out from there.’”
The book’s title is an elegant metaphor for living with grief: Emma says her dad would turn a big rapid into “something doable, something orderly and reasonable. It was just a series of small maneuvers that would add up to something larger.” Living in the wake of grief is a series of small maneuvers too. Grief is never over; it’s not about getting through it. It’s about moving forward, and the steps can be as small as you need them to be.