Bass, Rick (Short Story Criticism)
Rick Bass 1958-
American short fiction writer, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Bass's short fiction career through 2002.
Bass is recognized as one of the foremost nature writers in America today. He is celebrated as both a skillful storyteller and outspoken advocate of wilderness preservation. Bass has established himself as a regional fiction and nonfiction writer of the American South, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest, setting his stories in the mountains, rivers, forests, swamps, and valleys of these areas. His stories express an admiration for nature, alarm at the forces of development that are altering America's landscape, and nostalgia for memories of wilderness and wildlife. His narrators are usually men engaged in traditional masculine activities—such as hunting, fishing, and ranching—while they also exhibit a sensitivity to human relationships as well as a respect for nature that is at times spiritual. Bass's prose is lyrical, descriptive, and punctuated by striking images. Many of his narratives include elements of magical realism, as well as characteristics of the tall tale, fable, or folk myth. Bass's short story and novella collections include The Watch (1989), Platte River (1994), In the Loyal Mountains (1995), The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness (1997), and The Hermit's Story (2002).
Bass was born March 7, 1958, in Fort Worth, Texas, where his mother was a schoolteacher and his father a geologist. Bass's childhood experiences of deer hunting with his grandfather in south Texas became the basis for his first book of essays The Deer Pasture (1985). Bass graduated with a bachelor of science degree in petroleum geology from Utah State University in 1979. From 1979 to 1987, he worked as a petroleum geologist in Jackson, Mississippi. This experience is recounted in his nonfiction book Oil Notes (1989). Bass's first story to be published, “Where the Sea Used to Be,” appeared in the Paris Review in 1987. Bass is married to Elizabeth Hughes, an artist who has illustrated some of his books, with whom he has two daughters. In 1987 the couple moved to a ranch in northern Montana, in the remote Yaak Valley, which is part of the Kootenai National Forest. The struggles of their first winter living in Montana are captured in Bass's Winter: Notes from Montana (1991). After this experience, Bass has become an outspoken environmental activist, particularly concerning the preservation of Yaak Valley. The relationship between his fiction writing and environmental activism is expressed in his essay collection Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism (1999). His concern with wildlife conservation is also expressed in The Ninemile Wolves (1992), The Lost Grizzlies (1995), and The New Wolves (1998). Bass's personal connection with animals is further illustrated in a memoir recounting the life of his favorite dog, Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had (2000). Bass's first novel, Where the Sea Used to Be, based on his novella of the same name, was published in 1998.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Bass's first collection of short stories, The Watch, concerns characters in various stages of transition. Central themes of this volume include love, friendship, and the passage of youth. In the title story, an old man leaves his family to live in a swamp, where he kills alligators with his bare hands and soon attracts several women seeking refuge from their abusive husbands. Eventually, the man's son captures him from the wilderness and chains him to the front porch like a dog. In “Mexico,” two men, friends since childhood, try to cultivate a prize-winning fish in the swimming pool of a home in suburban Houston, Texas. Meanwhile, one of the men, the narrator, observes the marital dynamics between his friend Kirby and Kirby's wife, Tricia. These characters also appear in three of Bass's other stories. In “Redfish,” the two friends spend a winter evening trying to catch a fish after Kirby and Tricia have had a quarrel. “Ironwood” and “The Wait” find the two friends several years later, struggling with the disappointments of separation and divorce. In “Ruth's Country,” set in Utah, a Mormon woman and a cattle rancher fall in love, forcing the woman to choose between her community and her relationship with the young rancher. Bass's next story collection, Platte River, comprises three novellas. These pieces demonstrate Bass's increasingly experimental narrative technique and the maturing of his themes and style. “Mahatma Joe” and “Field Events” both include elements of magical realism, as well as elements of the tall tale, fable, and folk myth. In “Mahatma Joe,” set in Montana, an aging, married evangelist falls in love with his twenty-year-old neighbor. In “Field Events,” three young men train for athletic competition and find love over the course of a summer vacation. The title novella, “Platte River,” is a Hemingway-esque tale of three men fishing for steelhead bass on the Platte River in Michigan. In the Loyal Mountains includes stories written in a more traditional narrative style, rather than the magical realist style of many of Bass's earlier fiction. “Days of Heaven” and “The Valley” both reflect Bass's efforts to preserve the Yaak Valley. “Swamp Boy” and “The Wait” explore humanity's relationship to the urban wildlife in Houston. Other stories in the volume express a sense of nostalgia for a past American wilderness. “The History of Rodney” concerns a young couple living in the forgotten town of Rodney, Mississippi, and addresses the conflict between the desire for permanence and the awareness of life's unceasing changes. The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness is another collection of three novellas. While sharing the settings and themes of Bass's previous fiction, these novellas express mystical connection between the protagonists and the natural environments they inhabit. In the title novella, a middle-aged woman recalls her childhood on a west Texas ranch and the death of her mother when she was eight years old. “The Myth of Bears,” set in the American West during the early 1900s, concerns a trapper named Trapper and his wife Judith. One night, Judith mysteriously sneaks out of their cabin to live in the nearby woods. From a hidden vantage point, she observes as Trapper continues to search for her over the course of several seasons. In the novella “Where the Sea Used to Be,” a young geologist looks for oil in the Appalachian foothills of Alabama. His uncanny ability to find hidden oil takes on a mystical quality. When he meets and falls in love with a young woman, the geologist must struggle between his passion for finding oil and his passion for the woman. Bass's volume of short stories entitled The Hermit's Story was published in 2002. In the title story, a man and woman on a hunting exercise with six dogs discover a dry basin beneath the frozen surface of a lake. In “Swans,” the narrator describes the physical decline and death of an Idaho homesteader whose wife sets fires on the shore of a frozen pond in order to warm the swans that live there. In “The Cave,” a pair of lovers strip naked and descend into an abandoned coal mine in West Virginia. In “Eating,” a wild owl finds itself in a roadside diner in North Carolina.
Bass is critically acclaimed for his compelling stories, well-crafted prose, unique narrative voice, and lyrical, sometimes haunting tales of human encounters with the endangered American wilderness. Bass receives mostly high praise for his three collections of short stories and two volumes of novellas. Many critics laud his skills as a regional writer whose vivid descriptions of the natural landscapes in which his stories are set express a strong sense of place and intimate knowledge of the wilderness. Other commentators comment on the mysterious, spiritual quality of Bass's stories, expressing a mystical element to the relationship between humans and nature. Environmentalists acclaim the intersection of fiction and environmental activism in Bass's stories, many of which express a pro-environmental message in the context of fictional narrative. Critics also comment on Bass's insightful representations of American men, portraying their struggles with their own ideals of masculinity and their efforts to resolve personal relationships through encounters with nature. Some scholars, however, find Bass's male characters to be unappealing and loutish, while others similarly feel that his female characters are underdeveloped.
The Watch: Stories 1989
Platte River 1994
In the Loyal Mountains 1995
The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness 1997
The Hermit's Story: Stories 2002
The Deer Pasture (essays) 1985
Wild to the Heart (essays) 1987
Oil Notes (nonfiction) 1989
Winter: Notes from Montana (nonfiction) 1991
The Ninemile Wolves: An Essay (essay) 1992
The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado (nonfiction) 1995
The Book of Yaak (nonfiction) 1996
*Fiber [illustrated by Elizabeth Hughes Bass] (nonfiction) 1998
The New Wolves (nonfiction) 1998
Where the Sea Used to Be (novel) 1998
Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism (essays) 1999
Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had (nonfiction) 2000
*The short story “Fiber” was published in Mississippi Review (spring 1997).
SOURCE: Merrill, Christopher. “Reclaiming the Frontier: New Writings from the West.” New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly 12, no. 2 (winter 1989): 208-19.
[In the following excerpt, Merrill compares Bass's The Watch with other books about the American West, arguing that they re-imagine the traditional frontier myth.]
“Try this for openers: the art of a region begins to come mature when it is no longer what we think it should be.”
It is no secret we are a nomadic people. The average American, according to the latest statistics, moves every two years; a...
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SOURCE: Kamine, Mark. “The Macho Myth Unmasked.” New Leader 72, no. 3-4 (6 February 1989): 19-20.
[In the following review of The Watch, Kamine cites the volume as impressive and praises Bass's well-crafted prose.]
Over the past two years Rick Bass has published short fiction in the Paris Review, Esquire, GQ, and the Quarterly. His work has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and New Writing from the South, and his was the opening story in The Pushcart Prize XIII. “The Watch,” the title piece of this first collection, will appear in the upcoming O'Henry Awards volume. All told, as impressive a record...
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SOURCE: Willis, Meredith Sue. “Stories With a Sense of Place.” Washington Post Book World (26 March 1989): 11.
[In the following review, Willis compares The Watch with two other short story collections, all depicting a strong sense of regional place, and discusses the symbolic significance of animals in Bass's stories.]
Will Weaver's short story collection, A Gravestone Made of Wheat, is dominated by landscape and the relationships between men. Weaver is a crafter of sentences and paragraphs, and his loving, familiar, crucial descriptions of machines are beautiful—sometimes more vivid than his characters. In “Going Home,” he writes, “I began...
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SOURCE: Glasser, Perry. “Purer Than Everything Else.” North American Review 274, no. 3 (September 1989): 69-72.
[In the following excerpt, Glasser chronicles The Watch as a promising collection by a young author, but criticizes the stories for their predictability and superficiality.]
Writers alternately understand themselves to be engaged in a futile, irrelevant dalliance, or they understand themselves to be engaged in the most vital and necessary of human activities: the articulation, formation and preservation of the human spirit.
That's if they think about themselves at all—which probably shouldn't be so very often.
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SOURCE: Saari, Jon. Review of The Watch, by Rick Bass. Antioch Review 47, no. 4 (fall 1989): 499-500.
[In the following review, Saari praises the stories in The Watch, depicting them as mesmerizing.]
These ten stories [in The Watch] introduce a writer of originality who possesses a sense of the bizarre in everyday life. In three of the stories an unnamed narrator recounts his experiences with his best friend, Kirby. Kirby has inherited hundreds of small oil wells from his father, which he is selling off one by one and using the money to live a wayward life of trips to Mexico full of drink and aimless celebration. Kirby has a large bass named Shack...
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SOURCE: Mort, John. Review of Platte River, by Rick Bass. Booklist 90, no. 11 (1 February 1994): 993.
[In the following review of Platte River, Mort comments that Bass writes beautifully, but that the three novellas included in this volume are spare and thematically unrelated.]
The Montana environmentalist (The Ninemile Wolves ) here [in The Platte River] offers three spare, unrelated stories. “Platte River,” the weakest, is about an ex-football player who journeys from Montana to speak at a small college in northern Michigan. It effectively evokes the sadness of a life in which dreams were realized early, and then nothing else...
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SOURCE: Walker, Sam. “Author's Tall-Tale Novellas Push Envelope of the Plausible.” Christian Science Monitor (8 March 1994): 13.
[In the following review, Walker declares that the stories in Platte River stretch the boundaries of realist fiction and resemble myth, fable, and the tall-tale.]
Imagine a man so muscular he can lift up a car, throw a discus 300 feet, and carry a cow on his shoulders. A character in Rick Bass's new book Platte River accomplishes these feats.
But in his seventh work of fiction, the author—who some consider one of America's most promising—has undertaken a task no less Herculean: gripping contemporary...
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SOURCE: Tilghman, Christopher. “Floating Down the River.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 March 1994): 3, 11.
[In the following review of Platte River, Tilghman praises Bass's strong sense of place and lyrical voice, but contends that some of his stories lack a strong focus.]
People who admire Rick Bass' resplendent 1989 story collection, The Watch, as well as his several intervening nonfiction books on what the publishers call “the outdoors,” have been looking forward to his new book of fiction with unusual interest. Some may be gunning for him, a writer who makes his reputation all too easily with a single book, but most of us are simply...
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SOURCE: Buffington, Robert. “Tolerating the Short Story.” Sewanee Review 102, no. 4 (fall 1994): 682-88.
[In the following essay, Buffington discusses various short fiction collections in terms of the principles of the short story form and comments that the three stories in Platte River should be categorized as long stories rather than as novellas.]
I may as well say at once that I am no cousin of Mr. Poe.
Were we bidden to say how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed, … we should answer, without hesitation—in the composition of a rhymed poem, not to exceed in length what might be perused in an...
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SOURCE: LeMonds, James. Review of Platte River, by Rick Bass. English Journal 83, no. 7 (November 1994): 105-06.
[In the following review, LeMonds praises Platte River, commenting that Bass is one of the finest American writers today.]
I picture Rick Bass huddled in front of his wood stove in the Yaak Valley of Montana, writing with gloves on in the dead chill of winter. Maybe he's just back from the Dirty Shame Saloon, headquarters to the Valley's thirty residents and the home of Dirty Burgers and Shameful Fries. An expatriate of sorts, Bass lived in Utah, Arkansas, and Mississippi before giving up on malls and subdivisions and settling on the isolation...
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SOURCE: Review of In the Loyal Mountains, by Rick Bass. Publishers Weekly 242, no. 18 (1 May 1995): 43.
[In the following review, the critic positively evaluates In the Loyal Mountains, claiming that there is a solid thematic cohesion to the collection.]
In this moving and self-assured collection of 10 stories [In the Loyal Mountains] (some of them linked, others not), Bass (Platte River) captures two very different regions of the country. A handful of the selections are set in an isolated Montana valley, a place inhabited by cougars and bears and the occasional pedestrian who gets pulled off the road and mauled. Others are set in the deep...
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SOURCE: Cryer, Dan. “A Natural Background for the Mysteries of Life.” Newsday (19 June 1995): B6.
[In the following review, Cryer applauds Bass's depiction of natural landscape as a setting for deeper explorations of life's mysteries in In the Loyal Mountains.]
Rick Bass' stories immerse the reader in a dreamy, languid ocean of mystery. Set in Texas, Mississippi and Montana, and told by male narrators, they probe warily around some deep, unsayable truth as if pinpointing it would break a spell. Written with a fluid, unpretentious lyricism, they are vivid and original testimonies to life's enduring strangeness. Bass emerged on the literary scene in 1989 with The...
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SOURCE: Long, David. “Rick Bass: Lessons from the Wilderness.” Publishers Weekly 242, no. 26 (26 June 1995): 83-4.
[In the following essay, Long highlights the development of Bass's writing career, his writing process, and the intersection of his fiction and environmental activism.]
Montana has bred, or attracted, more than its share of writers, but few have craved its isolation or valued its wildness with the passion of Rick Bass. “Do I want more society or less? I think the question is going in the wrong direction,” he says. “In our society it's going to be hard to get enough remoteness, or enough time with one's self. I wouldn't be so cornball as to...
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SOURCE: Kendall, Elaine. “Two Lands Linked by a Mystical Quality.” Los Angeles Times (27 June 1995): E4.
[In the following review, Kendall praises Bass's sense of regional place in the stories of In the Loyal Mountains.]
Impelled by a profound love of the land, the 10 stories in In the Loyal Mountains are a reminder that American literature draws its unique strength from a powerful sense of place. Here, author Rick Bass concentrates on two distinct and contrasting regions, the Delta country of Mississippi and a remote valley in Montana, areas linked only by a mystical quality common to both.
In “The History of Rodney,” the narrator and...
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SOURCE: Bass, Rick, and K. C. Johnson. “What the Woods Would Expect of You: An Interview with Rick Bass.” In Delicious Imaginations: Conversations with Contemporary Writers, edited by Sarah Griffiths and Kevin J. Kehrwald, pp. 142-49. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1998.
[In the following interview, which took place on 7 February 1996, Bass discusses the art of the short story, his nonfiction writing, and his environmental activism.]
Rick Bass is the author of the noted fiction collections The Watch, Platte River, and In the Loyal Mountains. He is also the author of seven books of non-fiction: The Deer Pasture, Wild to the...
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SOURCE: Review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, by Rick Bass. Kirkus Reviews (15 September 1997): 1402.
[In the following review, the commentator praises The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, calling the stories appealing, thoughtful, and captivating.]
Two appealing short stories and an exquisite novella [The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness] from Montana essayist and storyteller Bass (The Book of Yaak, 1996; In the Loyal Mountains, 1995, etc.).
The title novella revels in the rugged beauty of bluffs and thickets in Texas hill country, where three generations preserve the family ranch as a haven for wild animals...
(The entire section is 360 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, by Rick Bass. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 38 (15 September 1997): 48.
[In the following review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, the critic applauds Bass's graceful prose and the mythological quality of his stories.]
“Spirit world, my butt,” thinks one hard-bitten character in the first of these three splendid novellas, but it is exactly that—a spirit world—that Bass grasps in his tales of people in the Western wilderness [in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness]. In the first, a mentally ailing trapper goes after a troublesome quarry: his wife. In the second, a wildcat oil man, who...
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SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, by Rick Bass. Booklist 94, no. 4 (15 October 1997): 385.
[In the following review, Seaman contends that all three novellas in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness are “beautifully mystical.”]
Bass has delved deeply into his love of nature and written three beautifully mystical novellas [in The Sky the Stars, the Wilderness]. These long stories are disorienting at first, so imbued are they with the slow, perfect rhythm of wilderness rather than the measure of clocks and artificial busyness of human existence. His characters, too, are unfamiliar, even exotic in their intimacy with...
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SOURCE: Solomon, Andy. “The Scientist is a Romantic.” Boston Globe (30 November 1997): G2.
[In the following review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, Solomon extols Bass's expression of love for and understanding of the natural landscape in which the writer's stories are set.]
Rick Bass embodies a fortunate confluence of virtues. From his earliest story collection, The Watch, he's professed a devout love for the land. As a petroleum geologist, he also possesses a scientific comprehension of the land. And as a writer of superb descriptive gifts, he has few equals in describing it.
Bass the storyteller weds art to understanding....
(The entire section is 1067 words.)
SOURCE: Curwen, Thomas. “The Call of the Wild.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 January 1998): 5.
[In the following review, Curwen discusses central themes within the three novellas of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness.]
At 9,100 feet, Yovimpa Point sits on the edge of the Earth. From here the world falls away in a succession of unspoiled plateaus and cliffs that drop nearly 5,000 feet before rising again to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, leaving Yovimpa with a clear shot over forests of piñon and ponderosa pines to a horizon more than 100 miles away. The view takes you back in time as well: The gravel and dust at your feet were laid down nearly 50 million...
(The entire section is 1489 words.)
SOURCE: Bass, Rick, and Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver. “Out of Boundaries.” In Passion and Craft: Conversations with Notable Writers, edited by Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver, pp. 72-84. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
[In the following interview, Bass recounts his literary influences, major themes in his fiction, and his first volume of short stories.]
A committed environmental activist, essayist, and fiction writer, Rick Bass has two reading audiences. To those primarily concerned with the natural world and the preservation of natural resources, Bass is the prolific, persuasive author of seven highly regarded nonfiction books: The Deer Pasture...
(The entire section is 5985 words.)
SOURCE: Bass, Rick. “Why the Daily Writing of Fiction Matters.” In Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction, edited by Will Blythe, pp. 74-83. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998.
[In the following essay, Bass asserts that fiction writing is important because it sharpens the perceptions and imagination of both the emotional and physical senses, and concludes that fiction has a healing effect on the world.]
I live in a remote valley deep in the woods, and I must confess that when I go into town and encounter someone who asks where I live and what I do, for the longest time it was not entirely with pride that I would tell him or her I was a writer, and a...
(The entire section is 3139 words.)
SOURCE: Steed, J. P. “Bass's ‘Fires’ and ‘Elk.’” Explicator 59, no. 1 (fall 2000): 54-6.
[In the following essay, Steed discusses the importance of the biblical mythos of fire to Bass's short stories “Fires” and “Elk.”]
In Judeo-Christian mythology, fire is associated with divinity and, more specifically, with the simultaneous acts of destruction and creation, or “renewal.” There is the pillar of fire leading the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 13.21), which is expressly personified and identified as “the Lord”; it is associated with renewal in that it is the means by which the Israelites are saved, or led out of the wilderness. And there is...
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SOURCE: Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. “Regeneration through Community.” In Remapping Southern Literature: Contemporary Southern Writers and the West, pp. 66-105. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, Brinkmeyer discusses Bass along with several other Southern writers who have written stories that take place in the American West and utilize narratives which begin with their characters' flight from the South, and end with the creation of a sense of community that resolves personal and inter-personal conflicts.]
Recent Southern writers who write about the contemporary West represent a wide cross section of Southern fiction. Despite...
(The entire section is 3170 words.)
SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of The Hermit's Story, by Rick Bass. Booklist 98, no. 17 (1 May 2001): 1443.
[In the following review, Seaman comments that the stories in The Hermit's Story are among the best Bass has written.]
Bass, a passionate, versatile, and increasingly lauded author acutely attuned to the wild and our conflicted relationship with nature, is especially gifted as a short story writer. His newest collection [The Hermit's Story,] is his most pristine, tender, and transporting yet. Bass uses simple, solid language, building sentences that preserve breathing space around each word like a stacked stonewall reveals the contours of each...
(The entire section is 315 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Hermit's Story, by Rick Bass. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 21 (27 May 2002): 34.
[In the following review, the critic maintains that The Hermit's Story, as a whole is uniformly excellent and that each story is both lovely and satisfying.]
s Nature is as otherworldly as a line of bright birds frozen stiff, and as prosaic as a patch of grass, in this uniformly excellent collection. In the title story [of The Hermit's Story], a dog trainer and her companion, a man called Gray Owl, take six dogs out on a hunting exercise. Toward the end of their trip, Gray Owl falls through the ice of a lake, but instead of drowning, winds up on at...
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SOURCE: Coan, Jim. Review of The Hermit's Story, by Rick Bass. Library Journal 127, no. 10 (1 June 2002): 198.
[In the following review, Coan praises the stories of The Hermit's Story, which he describes as entertaining and thought-provoking.]
In his new collection [The Hermit's Story], novelist and nature writer Bass (e.g., Colter) focuses a naturalist's eye not only on the frozen lakes and interplay of predator and prey often found in his work but also on the ebb and flow of human emotions and relationships. Among several selections set in a remote region of northern Montana is the title story, in which a couple and a pack of dogs, lost in...
(The entire section is 240 words.)
SOURCE: Solomon, Chris. “Hermit's Story Goes Underground to Reveal the Light.” Seattle Times (5 July 2002): H41.
[In the following review, Solomon lauds The Hermit's Story for its use of natural landscape settings as integral components to the stories.]
You might say that Rick Bass' sense of direction is all turned around. In the general cosmology, “up” is the direction with good connotations. There's heaven, the warm sun, mountaintop enlightenment. Underground? That's home to Hades. The dirt nap.
Yet frequently in the stories of Bass, a former petroleum geologist whose 17 books include the memoir Oil Notes, much wonder...
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Coleman, Ancilla F. “Rick Bass: Contemporary Romantic.” Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association (1990): 53-8.
Discussion of Bass's fiction in the tradition of Romantic literature.
Ruiter, David. “Life on the Frontier: Frederick Jackson Turner and Rick Bass.” JASAT: Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas (26 October 1995): 66-73.
Treats the myth of the American West in Bass and Turner.
Additional coverage of Bass's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Nature Writers; Contemporary...
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