In last month's announcement of Literary Arts' 2006 Oregon Book Award nominations, several authors were noticeably missing. One is acclaimed novelist Craig Lesley, a winner in 2002 for his novel Storm Riders. There's no reason why he shouldn't have been nominated this year for Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood, now available in paperback (Picador, $14, 384 pages).
Lesley's story is set in a rough-and-tumble Oregon, where men settle their own disputes and judge their manliness by how much meat they set on the table. At best, the men in Lesley's early life are unreliable: His father, Rudell, abandons the family when Lesley is only eight months old, and his stepfather, Vern, is a volatile railroader whom Lesley's mother ultimately leaves. Lesley acknowledges the strangeness of not choosing his supportive, single mother as his subject at the outset. "So, why write about my father at all when she's the hero?" he asks.
"Even though I had only eight meetings with my father until I was well past 40," he answers, "his influence on me was enormous." Rudell is often the model of what Lesley is determined not to be. As a young man wanting to prove himself a better father, Lesley adopts Wade White Fish, an alcohol-damaged Native American child with severe learning disabilities. For years Lesley insists on raising Wade, despite devastating personal costs, including his first marriage.
The strongest stories in Burning Fence are those that focus on Rudell and his life in Monument, Ore. Telling his father's stories, Lesley's voice takes on a liveliness and ease that his fiction can lack. Rudell is great material: a gold prospector, an expert marksman and poacher, a fence builder and a barroom boxer who won his last fight at age 73. Lawless, he lived in a county that didn't find anyone guilty of murder until 1998. If Lesley struggles to find compassion for Rudell even after he's passed away, at least he finds joy in the man's stories.
Burning Fence satisfies in its relentless detail, addiction to the vernacular and merciless humor, particularly for those of us who have our own roots in that tougher Oregon but live now in our soft city ways. There are few authors writing about the divide between Oregon's city and country cultures and what it's like to be caught in between. Lesley deserves recognition for doing so.
Tickets for the Oregon Book Awards (Friday, Dec. 1) are SOLD OUT. Find more info at literary-arts.org.