Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday Fiction: Death Pans Out

Ashna Graves with Death Pans Out (2007), has written a murder mystery with unconventional twists. The story, set in dry and rocky eastern Oregon, opens with Neva returning to an abandoned mine to heal from cancer. But strange noises at night and her own journalistic curiosity have her asking questions from a bevy of quirky, three-dimensional characters who are not all friendly. Someone knows something about Neva's uncle's disappearance. and Neva is determined to find out.

Perhaps Ashna Graves, a former journalist herself, wrote this story because she is in love with the high desert country of eastern Oregon. Her lyrical descriptions reflect sheer appreciation for nature in its unspoiled state. One example of her clear and evocative style: "Frogs began a slow chorus around the edge of the glossy, opaque ater. A noisy clattering on the slope to the east of the pond turned out to be five elk, the first she had seen on Billie Creek."

But at its heart, Death Pans Out is about the struggle for survival on one's own terms, whether as an irascible retiree who seeks artifacts, a former beauty queen who runs a cattle ranch, or Neva herself, pushed to vacate her uncle's cabin because she came to this narrow river valley not to mine, which the small community would understand, but to heal.

Ashna Graves confesses that this story is based partly on 'real life' and that "the power and beauty of the land healed me after a long illness." The reader also learns, along with Neva, about the issues between environmentalists and miners and ranchers, and the hard scrabble reality that informs the history and values of people who live in a small Western town.

A long-time resident of Oregon, I tracked this book down at our local library because I knew Ashna Graves as columnist Wendy Madar for the Corvallis Gazette-Times. She is an excellent storyteller. I was pulled right into Death Pans Out by her ability to draw original, yet believable characters, place them in unsettling circumstances, and twist the plot tighter and tighter to a surprising yet entirely satisfying conclusion.

Perhaps this story was intended for female readers as it focuses on Neva's coming to terms with her own cancer and her uncle's death. Neva's physical strength, her integrity, her commitments to others, and simply, her courage is tested again and again.

But I believe this rich story has a wider appeal, as it rings true to a region and a time when miners and folks living in small towns knew each other well and depended on each other for more than an occasional 'howdy.'

Ranking: 'Must Read' with 5 out of 5 stars.

Visit Ashna Graves/Wendy Madar website here.