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Prairie Fever by Michael Parker

Published by Algonquin Books on May 21, 2019

Prairie Fever begins in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma in 1917. Elise and Lorena had two brothers who died of typhoid, deaths their father blamed on prairie fever, a phrase Elise associates with life, not death: prairie dog villages; the way the prairie wind “makes everything slap and creak and whistle.” When the novel begins, Elise is 15 and Lorena is a year older. Both sisters are precocious and improbably eloquent, resulting in entertaining dialog as they try to one-up each other during the ride to school on a horse named Sandy. Elise seems to live in her imagination (she is certain that Sandy knows the way to all destinations and often travels along ocean beaches). Lorena purports to be reality based, although she doesn’t “believe that some things have to be real and that makes them not real.”

Each day when the sisters arrive at school, they are unpinned from their blanket by their teacher. Gus McQueen is 19, a new arrival in Lone Wolf. He was raised by his aunt in North Carolina and was recommended for the teaching job by his own teacher, thanks to McQueen’s talent for memorization.

Prairie Fever’s first dramatic moment occurs when Elise, in reaction to Lorena’s cruel comment, decides to leave class and ride Sandy to a neighboring town in a blizzard. Searching for Elise with Lorena clinging to his back, McQueen is transformed by a combination of love and desire, and perhaps a kind of spiritual awakening. Elise is also changed by the experience, losing some fingers and toes and part of her nose.

McQueen believes that his life repeatedly forces him to select “the lesser of two bad choices,” but sometimes he feels guided (in a literal sense) by his dead brother. McQueen’s choice between the Stewart sisters drives the novel’s plot. The girls are much alike but different in key aspects. Gus loves them both but realizes that he only hears the “true cry” of one sister.

Prairie Fever is not a modernized Lolita. Even today, the age of consent in Oklahoma is 16 and McQueen does not pursue either sister while she is still in school. He is only a few years older than the girls, and given the time frame in which the story unfolds, there is nothing creepy about his intentions. McQueen is, in fact, quite proper and something of a sweet bumbler in his courtship.

One sister eventually goes to Texas and the other to Wyoming, both described as dismal places albeit for different reasons. The novel’s second part consists of letters that the sisters write to each other while pretending to write to someone else. The letters are filled with subtle and (in Lorena’s case) biting humor, making them a joy to read.

The last part jumps ahead a couple of decades, allowing the reader to see what has become of Gus and the two sisters. The story’s drama initially concerns the triangular relationship among the sisters and Gus. After both sisters settle into life, the drama concerns the rift that develops between the sisters and whether they will be able to restore their bond. A story of that nature could easily become a soap opera, but there is no melodrama here. Prairie Fever is instead an honest portrayal of complex characters living simple but meaningful lives. Their approaches to a difficult (and perhaps impossible) reconciliation are based on a true understanding of the conflict between love and pride.

While the story is always interesting, it is the prose and the characters that captured by attention. The writing is of award-winning quality. McQueen is a decent man, as is a rancher who later enters the story as the husband of one of the sisters. Growing up with “prairie stretching to the horizon,” unbounded by conventions, has given the sisters the gift of free thought. Yet they both struggle with their imaginations as they question whether and when it is best to replace knowing with pretending.

Few books make me fall in love with characters, but the frankness, eloquence, and imaginations of both Lorena and Elise make the characters memorable. They are spirited and stubborn but mostly motivated by wisdom and kindness. I understand Gus’ dilemma in trying to decide which sister to wed. I loved them both.


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