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Review: Survival and weirdness in the Bitterroot Range

“Kingdomtide,” by Rye Curtis.
“Kingdomtide” by Rye Curtis
(Little, Brown and Co. )

Rye Curtis’ debut novel, “Kingdomtide,” is that rare genre-fluid story that is lovable both because of and despite its surfeit of eccentric, over-the-top characters and moments. Some are gritty and dark, others light and wise; together they create an impressive first book and a highly original tale of adventure and perseverance.

There are two protagonists: Cloris Waldrip, the Texas-born sole survivor of a small-airplane crash in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest that killed her husband of 54 years; and ranger Debra Lewis, a depressed and depressing alcoholic divorced woman who, with a crew of misfit rescuers, attempts to track down Waldrip using the clues she’s left behind in the wilderness.

The book’s Lynchian swirl of occasionally outlandish events is arranged into chapters that alternate between these two characters (Waldrip is the more compelling), demonstrating how strength of spirit and moral growth are sometimes — and sometimes not — ignited by unexpected trauma.

Waldrip is in her 70s when she finds herself stranded, driven to escape her fate using only the sturdy shoes she chose to wear that morning and her (considerable) wits. She narrates the tale from 20 years into the future, having survived the ordeal only to face the inevitable in an assisted living facility in Vermont.

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Kingdomtide, an old Methodist liturgical season coinciding with autumn and emphasizing good works, corresponds to the weeks of Waldrip’s survival struggle. She must fend off wild animals, starvation, extreme weather, ankle-breaking cliffs, a backward-walking lion and numerous other, more man-made predicaments. “It is peculiar how the human spirit endures,” she says. “A person can get used to a situation, even if that situation may have once seemed intolerable.”

Waldrip is immediately irresistible. Her first-person voice bubbles with a sage vibrancy as well as sometimes laugh-out-loud wit, as when she describes her fellow Methodist neighbors back in Amarillo, Texas. “Mabry Cartwright never married,” she says of one parishioner, “being that her teeth might as well have been woodchips and her breath the wind over a feedlot.”

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Rye Curtis, author of “Kingdomtide”
(Lauren Damaskinos)

Female parishioners from church appear frequently in the narrative, but Waldrip lets us know upfront — or would like us to believe — that she has transcended such gossip by virtue of her ordeal. Yet her natural humor comes through in the stories she tells.

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“I no longer pass judgment on any man nor woman,” she announces in the opening paragraph. “People are people, and I do not believe there is much more to be said on the matter. Twenty years ago I might have been of a different mind about that, but I was a different Cloris Waldrip back then.” And yet, she concludes, even seismic change doesn’t necessarily lead to self-knowledge. “It does amaze that a woman can reach the tail end of her life and find that she hardly knows herself at all.”

Lewis is a less engaging character. She has a messy private life, marked by dysfunctional loneliness and endless bottles of Merlot. She’s also, to her credit, adamant that Cloris is alive against all odds, and she drives a flamboyant cast of characters to carry on with the search. It’s something readers gradually come to see as a way to structure her unmoored life.

Lewis mostly interacts with a perplexing father and-daughter duo, Steven and Jill Bloor. Stephen is a fellow search-and-rescue ranger whose peccadilloes include constantly chalking his sweaty hands and pinching Lewis’ body. As the novel progresses, Lewis grows increasingly attracted to the teenage Jill.

There is a glut of bizarre detail in the Lewis chapters that might not be to everyone’s taste: weird sex inside a hot tub; an ex-husband in prison for trigamy; a hermit wearing girls’ underwear as jewelry; a low-grade psychotic artist who creates sculptures from garbage, electrical tape and cat skeletons and adorns them with earrings made of used tampons. It’s all pretty disturbing, and clearly meant to be, but the turnoffs don’t amount to anything significant.

Despite this, the pertinacious ranger does possess the precious commodity of self-knowledge. In Curtis’ thickly applied vernacular spelling, Lewis thinks, “I don’t figure I’m a people person. Sometimes I just don’t give a goddamn about anyone. I have to work at it. Remind myself everybody else still exists even when I’m not lookin at them. You figure sayin somethin like that tells you somethin about me?”

It’s Waldrip, finally, who suggests that life stories are shaped by those who live to retell them — something she has done in this narrative with formidable grace. “I suppose people tell stories partly because we can tell them over and over again,” she says. “You come to learn that there is no retelling a life and it is by your own secret hand that you are the author of your own demise.”

“Kingdomtide” is periodically uneven, especially in the Lewis chapters, but ultimately, it’s a distinctive and inventive story about nonconformity, resilience and the ways we draw strength from unlikely places — in this case, an unbidden world of divorce, addiction and unexpected setbacks, like falling out of the sky.

Kinosian is a longtime contributor to The Times.

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Kingdomtide

Rye Curtis

Little, Brown: 304 pages; $28


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