“For my dad, the thing that awed him the most about the Grand Canyon was how it messed with his sense of scale. Because it was so wide and so deep and so long he told me, the Grand Canyon had a way of making everything else seem small. And he didn’t just mean things like bosses, or slow traffic, or celebrities. He also meant actual things in the Grand Canyon. If you weren’t careful, you could get tricked into thinking rapids were smaller than they were, because in comparison they were small, even when they were really big.” — A Series of Small Maneuvers by Eliot Treichel
By Adam Elliott
I started reading Eliot Treichel’s book, A Series of Small Maneuvers, as a friend hoping to help spread the word, but I soon realized that the book’s plot resonated strongly with my childhood. I’m a third-generation desert river-rat with a passionate father who raised us on epic backcountry experiences. I’ve certainly read Young Adult novels before, but I seldom connect with the main characters. It’s great to get caught up in the story of a fantasy novel like Harry Potter or The Golden Compass. And while each of those books has a well-defined narrative, it is often the story itself that eclipses all other literary merit.
A Series of Small Maneuvers, on the other hand, is an emotional, heady and often slow book. There are no talking creatures that mirror an internal struggle. There are no epic magic battles and there is no typical teenage romance drama. It was partly the promise of some whitewater canoeing scenes that drew me into the book. It was the complex relationships, authentic voices, and a mature appreciation of grief that kept me reading the book.
The main character, Emma, grapples with the death of her father on a wilderness canoe trip. It was an accident that didn’t feel like an accident. The story unfolds like a stained and faded map of a dangerous and beautiful landscape.
Emma is a teenage girl, a young woman, a human being, who experiences grief, guilt and the probability of not figuring out the answers. She is adrift in a world of uncertainty, but she had been given the early lessons of love, levity, and small maneuvers to keep moving forward.
Her childhood was very similar to mine. She grew up listening to stories of big-water river trips and epic ski-tours. At four or five years old she was probably learning how to tie a bowline and a directional figure-8. Her father, like my father, like myself, like most of my friends, was consumed by the supremacy of nature. He was most happy when immersed wholly in the elements, finding the flow state, athletically tapped into the Universal.
It feels as if Eliot wrote the characters about my family.
The book hit me pretty hard. It’s presence in my life coincided with the brutal events recently: terrorism, absurd politics, and a re-emergence from – and newfound appreciation of – my depression. I miss the pushy river. I miss the warm vanilla smell deep in the Ponderosa forests of my youth. I miss my family. I miss my friends who’ve died on the river. The political war drums pound louder, Facebook sucks us in with dramatic confrontations, sensational caricatures of political buffoons. I see the fractured communities, the raw throats and the deaf ears, the inflammatory rhetoric and taller, thicker walls separating us. Sometimes it is difficult to feel optimism about our human condition.
But, upon reflection, I begin to understand it is the shared experience of grief that transcends specific events, or specific losses.
I love Eliot for not wrapping the story in a bow of insights and lessons – a cheaply disguised happily ever after. And yet, the book doesn’t stop to dwell in a place of that’s the way it is either. It can be easy to slip into complacency and denial. Complacency is a partial acceptance. It is saying “Yeah, that happens. It’s a part of life.” I would argue that complacency is another word for stopping short of compassion – stopping short of living and understanding the reality of your emotions.
I have often dealt with my own loss, with my own failures, by numbing it through flow experiences in nature. Searching out the beautiful, the unique and new, can reward us with that bit of life-affirming, and yes, districting, wonder. And it sometimes just feels like a salve that doesn’t quite address the underlying pain of loss. The pattern for me is sometimes like this: Escape to the mountains and the rivers. Learn that new skill. Start that new project. New for it’s own sake doesn’t always achieve the best results. It is often still attached to failure, the regret and loss of what should have been, perhaps what could never have been. My depression has been built upon the denial of my suffering.
As the morning sky slowly brightens, I drink slowly from my chipped coffee cup and watch a group of teenagers kick at frozen clumps of grass on their way to the bus stop. I see their bantering only as small puffs of gray in the dim greens of a frozen Willamette valley. They poke at their phones and glance up the street looking for the bus. I think of 15 year-old Emma, and the gulf that has opened between herself and her peers.
I think Eliot wrote his characters’ suffering about all of our suffering.
–Learn more on: EliotTreichel.com