By Maureen Corrigan
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 27, 2009
By Nevada Barr
Putnam. 399 pp. $25.95
To quote Tennyson (and, by all means, let's grab the waning opportunities to do so), "Nature, red in tooth and claw" is always the Great Adversary in Nevada Barr's mysteries. Sure, the psycho killers and eco-criminals who prowl the forest primeval give Barr's heroine, park ranger Anna Pigeon, plenty of trouble; however, human evildoers are but puny irritants when compared with the fury of Mother Nature. Forest fires, volcanic eruptions and, in this latest novel, flash floods threaten to wipe the earth's crust clean, without a care for the mortals -- Anna always among them -- standing in the path of the apocalypse. By now, a normal woman would have taken early retirement from the National Park Service and appeased the call of the wild by reading National Geographic in her La-Z-Boy. But, Anna Pigeon is no normal woman: She's a menopausal Amazon in khaki who carries the wilderness within her and still manages to kick butt even as her own is sagging.
In "Borderline," Anna is on administrative leave, recovering from a particularly gruesome near-death experience in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park that was the subject of "Winter Study," the preceding mystery in this series. Being Anna, she chooses to heal by rafting down the Rio Grande in Texas's Big Bend National Park. Accompanying her are her new husband, Paul Davidson (who's both a sheriff and an Episcopal priest), and a gaggle of college kids who range from whiny to winsome. No sooner does the crew set out, however, than whitewater and a wobbly coed cause the raft to capsize, also tossing out the rogue cow Anna has just rescued. Flailing around in the rapids, Anna and her companions spot the body of an almost-dead pregnant woman caught in a narrow "strainer" of rock and tree branches. With the woman's dying blessing, Anna performs a pocketknife C-section and delivers an infant girl. Whew! Had enough?
Certainly not. So far, this is little more than a routine workday's tussle with the elements for Anna. Now enter the human malefactors. As the group -- sans cow, but with swaddled newborn in tow -- struggles to climb up the deep canyon walls, a sniper begins firing at them, picking off their guide and one of the students. The already traumatized Anna finds herself operating efficiently on ranger muscle memory, but the college kids are having a harder time with this "Deliverance"-style adventure. Even before the shooting starts, Anna has made a sour assessment of the students' moxie:
"The faces of the college kids looked pale and drawn. . . . They were products of the Barney generation where everybody always wins. . . . They had been trained to passivity and entitlement, skills that were useless in the present situation. Had they also been trained to obedience it would have helped, but in Barney's world everyone was a leader, regardless of ability." After these breathless opening chapters, the bulk of "Borderline" is devoted to a rather flat plot that centers on the corruptions of political life and the dilemma of illegal aliens. (The dead mother is presumed to have been a Mexican woman who was swept away while attempting to cross the Rio Grande so that her baby would be born in the United States.) Of more interest are Anna's ruminations on her missed chances at motherhood and on the way matrimony can diminish a woman's status and sense of autonomy. For instance, when she is questioned by wary police and Park Service officials about her extreme adventure on the Rio Grande, they call her "Mrs. Davidson," in order to distance themselves from a colleague they regard as possibly unstable. As evidenced by her nonfiction book on religious belief, "Seeking Enlightenment . . . Hat by Hat," Barr -- and her fictional alter ego, Anna, who married a minister, after all! -- has grown more explicitly spiritual over the years. Anna's brushes with violent death here extend this series' meditation on the presence of evil in even the most glorious of settings.
A friend who is also a devotee of the Anna Pigeon mysteries complains that Barr has grown almost sadistic in her treatment of Anna. Nary a novel goes by anymore, she insists, where Anna is not bruised, bloodied and psychologically battered in Technicolor detail. I don't think, however, that these gruesome misadventures signify that Barr is trying to fictionally exorcise a character she's grown weary of (a la Arthur Conan Doyle, who famously tried to shove Sherlock Holmes out of his brain by drowning him in the Reichenbach Falls). There's a built-in one-upsmanship factor in series fiction, and to keep Anna in fighting trim, Barr has to intensify her "workout." As "Borderline" demonstrates, Anna is a character whose best features surface in adversity. When she's at rest, she's somewhat depressed and flaccid; but when she's sweating and, yes, sometimes even bleeding, she's stoic, strong and beautiful.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course on mystery fiction at Georgetown University.