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On John Rember, Sun Valley and Ernest Hemingway

Posted by admin on March 16, 2012 in Books, Musings |

This morning Betty and I are in Sun Valley, Hollywood in Idaho, at the Sun Valley Film Festival. Our film wasn’t chosen to be screened but our friend and mentor, Christopher Beaver has a film—Tulare-The Phantom Lake—entered and he invited us to represent him since he would be busy filming elsewhere.

Besides representing Chris, we will be doing some networking with film folk and as always, finding time for Betty to practice her photography.

Sun Valley is a beautiful place, but like many locations that sport ski areas, it seems a little too glitzy for me, so we will take a break or two from the festival and head north (if the weather permits), over Galena Summit into the Stanley Basin and escape to something a bit more real.

Fairfield, on the Road to Sun Valley

The Stanley Basin is a hard country—a beautiful country—but a hard country. The Salmon River and several of its tributaries meander down from the surrounding peaks and form a bowl that holds the heavy air of winter so that the climate in the Basin is some of the coldest in the country. People who endure in the Basin year ‘round are few, they are hardy and they have an arrogance that announces they can make it through the frost, the cold, the wind, the snow, the long, long teeth of winter’s bite.

The valley is rimmed by the Sawtooths on one side and the Boulder-White Clouds on the other. The bottom land is willows and sage and aspen in the cold, wet spots. A favorite recreational area, the Basin draws sportsmen from all over the world as does Sun Valley, but a twain often resides between the kinds of men and women who go after the glitz of Sun Valley and the folks who travel into the Stanley Basin.

Big Wood River, south of Sun Valley

Not to say that I am either a glitzer or a rough-necker, I am neither. I do enjoy the outdoors, but also enjoy the conveniences of the town where I live.

The Stanley Basin is one of those places that is so beautiful in late spring and summer and fall that you just want to rent or buy a cabin and live there away from it all. But according to Stanley Basin dweller and part time native, John Rember, the Basin and its hardies eat up newcomers like premium ice cream.

Last month I heard Rember, an author and educator, talk about writing. He also read one of his short stories. Rember lives in the Basin on the property his father and mother weaned him on when being able to kill a buck, an elk, catch a salmon, really mattered to one’s ability to survive. Not like now, where the state regulates hunting and fishing and we go do it because it’s fun and our friends want to kill something and so do we.

I was so impressed with Rember, I bought two of his books, MFA in a Box (Dream of Things, Downers Grove, Ill, 2010) and Traplines (Vintage Books, New York, NY, 2004).

MFA in a Box is a how-to, a why-to book about creative writing. But more than that it is a journey through literature from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Ernest Hemingway. On the way, we get a little Jung, Dostoevsky, Boccaccio, Borges, Atwood, Camus, Conrad and Bly, to name a few. We also get a look into Rember’s life. Besides being a survey of literature and a how-to book about writing, I think the book is also memoir.

For example, here is a passage from the chapter on “Writing Image.” Rember is writing about a dream he had, about Hemingway (Rember evidently used to run into Hemingway before that author’s suicide in 1961), and other things.

I’m walking along a river. It’s swollen with spring runoff, and as I am wading through flooded riverbank grass I look ahead to a crowd of people clustered at the side of a bridge. I get closer and see that they’re looking at a body wrapped around one of the pilings. When I get to the crowd, I ask who has drowned. Somebody says it’s Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway looks awful. Fish have eaten off his nose and his flesh has the clean translucence of death-by-washing.

When I initially read this passage, I thought it was real because of the quality of the writing. Notice Rember’s prose. Short and gets to the point, and not unlike something Hemingway would have written ninety years ago. Notice how Rember uses imagery in the piece. You can see the setting, the people, the death.

In his book Traplines the author delivers fourteen essays about the Stanley Basin: learning to hunt and fish, making bombs, building fence, and trapping, among other things. In his spare prose, similar to Hemingway’s style in that regard, Rember muses on his days running a string of pack mules in central Idaho; on skiing volcanoes; on shooting rockchucks with his first date, an older girl named Corinna, the sheriff showing up as they are drinking beer, Rember being the age of fourteen; hauling freshly cut and peeled posts in Harrah’s old De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft into a ranch in the back-country.

Along the way, we get insights into how Rember thinks, what is important to him. Educated at Harvard and the University of Montana, having taught creative writing at College of Idaho(among other places), he has a somewhat unique point of view considering the meaning of life.

I have not been into the Sun Valley or Stanley Basin country since I read these two books by John Rember. So when we go over the summit, I will be looking at the country to see if I can identify places he talks about. Along the road looking at the russet branches of willow and the bare limbs of the quakies in the cold places, I will consider what he told me in his books and mesh that with what I think, what I know about life coming from another place—the desert—and having my own stories of hard-bitten life.

And if I see a moose, or not, I will think I’m in the wilderness, even though the glitz is just over the summit.

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