Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445
Clara Coleman, in her first appearance in this novel, is a young girl trying hard to find light and meaning in a landscape that is short on both commodities. The Gulch, as it is called, is an impoverished part of a section of Colorado mining country; life is coarse there, and the people see only what lies immediately in front of them. Clara’s family suffers a sort of class-conscious tension; her father, an Easterner who has come West as an assayer, has pretensions to social refinement but lacks the wherewithal to achieve that refinement; her mother bears her children—and her husband’s rage—to an early death.
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What distances Clara from this miasma is a unique insight—what she calls her Moment of Knowing—experienced when she is nine, in which she realizes that she can be and must be different from her parents. The power to achieve that difference, Clara understands, lies in books, in words, in learning. Thus, she sets about educating herself, seeking education so that she might bring that same power to others in that bleak and benighted place. Clara does not, indeed, seek to escape that place, but to return to that place and to improve it.
After a hard-earned college degree and a marriage to a sort of magical, father-haunted man named Andy Percival, Clara comes back to the Gulch as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. She returns to replace a teacher who has been forced to leave when her pregnancy—the result of a rape—becomes obvious to an unenlightened community that would rather punish the victim than one of its own.
Over time, Clara blossoms as a teacher, bringing significant change into the lives of her students and of her community; she sees the effects of her “Knowing” upon young men and women who seize parts of Clara’s own dream and make them their own. Clara also witnesses the alteration of the place she has long known as home; development comes to the mine country, as first an oil refinery, then ski resorts forever alter both the physical and the social landscape of the region. Clara’s personal geography also changes with the birth and growth of three children, all three of whom endure the effects of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Ultimately, Greenberg’s novel is about change and about constancy. As the sociology of the region modifies itself, so too does its ethos, and Clara eventually becomes a victim of that transformation. At what is sometimes a breathtaking pace and with always a satisfying edge, Greenberg describes the manner of love’s endurance amidst tragedy and the swirl of time’s passage.