The Hermit’s Story

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Rick Bass is a writer known for his love of the wild. Finding a more ardent defender of the wilderness would be difficult; Bass, himself, lives in the wilderness—specifically, in the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana—and has spent a good deal of his writing life defending that wilderness in stories, in essays, and in political action.

Many of the stories in this new collection take place in that wilderness, or in wilderness areas much like the Yaak; others are located in wild areas scattered throughout the United States, though Bass often situates his characters (when not in Montana) in the South, where Bass himself was born. Wherever they find themselves, all of these characters end up having to confront themselves, their loves and hates, and the rigors of the wild.

In several of these stories, characters run up hard against the complexities of love. Marriages often are under pressure and in decline. In “Two Deer,” the narrator tries to account for the mystery introduced into his life by two wild deer, at a moment when the emotional weight of his marriage lies heavy upon his shoulders. Like others in this collection, the narrator here discovers the necessity of love—of its recovery or retrieval. In “The Fireman,” the main character literally seeks rescue, both in his labors as a volunteer fireman and in his efforts as a father trying to recover a daughter taken from him by divorce; at times, he finds himself upon his ex-wife’s roof, listening for the breaths of his daughter to confirm her well-being and her love.

Some of the most powerful stories in The Hermit’s Story are those that take place in Bass’s home territory of the Yaak Valley. In the title story, a woman recounts a miraculous trek beneath the iced-over surface of a mountain lake, literally walking beneath the frozen skin of the lake in a moment of suspended grace. And in “Swans,” the narrator watches as one of the near-mythical men in the valley slips gradually toward death. Residents of this valley are large, rugged people who believe in and often participate in a realm of not-everyday magic. Events in the valley are frequently extraordinary, and the people who live through those events emerge with hearts made wild and expansive and suited to the scale of the place they inhabit.