‘Martin Marten’: a kingdom of characters, animal and human
In Oregon author Brian Doyle’s new novel, “Martin Marten,” set in the country near Mount Hood, odd and endearing humans interact with animals, including a 14-year-old boy who forms a bond with a pine marten.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Martin Marten” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, April 17, on the Chuckanut Radio Hour. At the Heiner Theater at Whatcom Community College, 237 W. Kellogg Road, Bellingham. Tickets are $5; for more information contact Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626 or villagebooks.com).
by Brian Doyle
St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp., $24.99
Portland writer Brian Boyle’s newest novel is a fanciful visit with some whimsical backwoods characters, human and nonhuman, who inhabit a tiny settlement along the Zigzag River on Oregon’s Mount Hood.
Dave is 14 and about to enter high school. “He is not particularly strong or athletic or brilliant in school or handsome or talented in music,” the author tells us. What he loves most is roaming and running cross-country through the forests near his home. Dave’s parents are hardworking country folk. His sister Maria, a quiet, observant 6-year-old, combines innocence and curiosity with a deep intuitive wisdom well beyond her years.
“We are sort of keeping her in reserve for when we really need her,” Dave’s father tells him. “She’s like a secret flashlight you pull out when everything looks dark.”
Other endearing and eccentric characters inhabit the mountainside: Dickie Douglas the trapper, Miss Moss the storekeeper, Cosmas the mad mountain biker. Dave’s best friend is the nerdy Moon whose parents, high-tech executives, provide a sharp contrast in this distinctly low-tech tale.
Doyle, author of the popular 2010 novel “Mink River,” is a born storyteller. To evoke a sense of the larger mountain community along the Zigzag, he loops in the animals that live there. So Lewis the elk, Edwin the horse and especially Martin Marten of the title are characters as well, each with their own plot threads.
Pine martens are small, lithe hunters of the weasel clan, and Doyle brings an informed sense of natural history and ecology to Martin’s part of the story. We follow Martin through denning, rearing, learning to hunt, territorial scraps; it is a remarkable departure in a contemporary novel.
Doyle is on less-firm ground when he explores Martin’s feelings and motivations, or the marten’s unlikely attraction to Dave.
Martin and Dave are both adolescents striking out in the world. They meet, of course, and become friends of a sort. Soon the small marten accompanies Dave on his morning runs through the forest, Dave on the trail, Martin high in the canopy.
Doyle works hard to evoke an ideal rural community, where humans and animals interact with respect and mutual regard. But his philosophical musings take up far too many pages here. “Martin Marten” lacks some of the more delightful magical realism of “Mink River,” where the animals talked, rescued humans, read the paper. Martin is involved in a rescue, too, but the good-natured interactions between animals and their human neighbors nudge the novel in the direction of young-adult fiction.
Some of Doyle’s best moments explore his character’s stumbling personal encounters. Dave’s adolescent confusion over girls, for instance, comes through brilliantly. “He was entranced and awkward and bumbling and a complete idiot with girls,” Doyle writes, “and not just the girls he found attractive, either, but with girls he was not attracted to at all ... which was just dispiriting.”
Life in the Northwest woods may be fanciful in “Martin Marten,” but the characters emerge true as rain.