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In August of 1996, my mother and I spent ten days driving around the state of Wisconsin, photographing each other in front of large plaster farm animals. You know the kind I mean: the giant chickens that stand in the parking lots of restaurants with names like The Chicken Shack; the soulful-eyed steers that loom over restaurants with names like The Burger Shack. We photographed each other with plaster horses, plaster bunny rabbits, and a pink plaster elephant. We found a blue ox, a yellow tweety bird, and-we argued over whether or not this counted-a plaster dinosaur.
I was writing my third novel, or at least, I was supposed to be writing my third novel, and I’d actually written about half of it before abruptly deciding I didn’t like it. I pitched the manuscript into the trash, deleted every last scrap off my hard drive, and wiped out my back-up disks. It was at this point that I called my mother. I have some free time, I said. We discussed the options, the free-falling possibilities. We set out for the open road.
I have long been an admirer of the writer Grace Paley, who writes, “The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but a great looping circle.” My mother and I took turns driving. We rarely consulted a map. I remembered many of the towns we passed from my childhood, when my mother and brother and I accompanied my father, a traveling salesman at the time, on his summer routes. I was struck by how much the landscape had changed since I’d last seen it, the family farms subdivided into half-acre lots, the fields lying fallow, the highway exits built up with strip malls and fast food restaurants. And, taking these exits into the towns, we discovered Main Street shops boarded up, local businesses driven out by Wal-Marts and Exxons and McDonalds. At night, their lights burned around the perimeters like the gleaming eyes of wolves.
In the morning, we’d drive on, passing what seemed to be an extraordinary number of new churches-box-shaped structures with gravel parking lots. We passed roadside crosses decorated with flowers. We passed countless statues of the Virgin, her faith unshaken in the midst of miniature windmills and herds of plastic deer.
Two days into our trip, we visited the first in a series of shrines, each of which marked the sites of so-called supernatural occurrences. Angels were involved in each and every one. Though I myself am not a believer, I understand the desire to believe, and I began to think about the juxtaposition of these shrines (and their attending angels) with the landscape they inhabit, a landscape in economic and social transition, peopled by citizens attempting to forge a new identity in a rapidly changing world. I thought about the national fascination with angels, the resulting books and magazines and TV shows. I thought about how it is meaningless to hold the yardstick of fact against the human heart.
I could not have said, at the time, that these thoughts were the seeds of a new novel, one I was meant to complete. I drove, and my mother drove, and we photographed plaster farm animals. (These photographs hang on my bulletin board as I write.) We attended the World’s Biggest Brat Fry. We saw the World’s Largest Pig. We talked with people we met and, mostly, they talked to us. Home again, my mind was humming with the stories I’d heard. One of those stories got caught in my head like a scrap of a song. I wanted to follow that song to its conclusion. I began to try it out in various keys, to develop and embellish its melody, to make it into something I could call my own.
River Angel is the result.