Monday, September 04, 2006

evil, in the middle of nowhere

I recently read an unusual and fascinating book, which gripped me for days, but which I didn't discuss with anyone. I've spent a lot of time mulling over this book; indeed, it was the rare sort of book which makes me put it down while I'm reading it in order to take some time just to think. Usually I'm quite loquacious about anything I read (just give me a drink and get me started on "Don Quixote", and you're bound to be entertained. My old friend, aka "Kim I", has not yet tired of winding me up on "Don Quixote"). But with "Strange Piece of Paradise", I've been tongue-tied.

Terri Jentz, now a middle-aged screenwriter, set out as a college sophomore with a friend to bike from coast to coast. As the college students slept in their tiny tent in an Oregon park, a man drove his truck over the women's tent and then attacked them with an axe. The two women, amazingly, lived (Jentz's friend nearly died from her injuries and has no memory of the attack, due to severe head injuries). Decades later, Jentz returned to Oregon to face her past. No one was ever charged in this crime, and as Jentz learned to her amazement, the police investigation was bizarrely stunted. Jentz set out to solve her crime herself, to find and face the man who could take a hatchet to teenagers, and to understand the place where this happened.

"Strange Piece of Paradise" can be overly verbose, and sometimes it can be stilted, but yet it grips. Are some people, for lack of a better word, evil? How can parents excuse and enable a criminal child? Why would people in a small town blame college students for their own attack? Are women safe anywhere?

Something I have never forgotten: once, I was camping in Nevada's Red Rock state park with a female friend, when we were awakened by what was clearly a man outside our tent. The park had very few people camping at it, and we were the only women unaccompanied by a man, sleeping in a small tent. However, we did have a nine millimeter handgun along with us, and as my friend screamed at me, "Get the gun!", I screamed back, "I've got it!" This friend, a doctor and experienced hiker and camper, was never hysterical in my presence other than that moment, when she screamed, ""Load it! Load it!" And so we sat, shaking, in our tent, as I racked back the slide on my SIG-Sauer and held it gripped in both hands. Then there was a silence, and we eventually heard our visitor retreat.

Would we, like Terri Jentz, have been marked forever by some arbitrary crime if we hadn't had a handgun? A handgun would not have helped Jentz (sidenote: I have been the victim of violent crime, which did change me and led me to take up an interest in guns, but that is a subject for another day). Is there something offensively provocative about a pair of women, sans men, out in the middle of nowhere in a little tent?

American poet laureate Robert Pinsky knew Jentz's friend and wrote a poem about the girls' attack. At the time, Jentz lived in the Chicago suburbs, and the Chicago media had a field day with the attack. But at that same time, the newspapers of Oregon -- where the attack occurred-- had virtually nothing to say about it, and what little they did have to say was buried on inside pages. The one editorial written at that time noted that obviously there were people out there who knew who had done this thing, but they had not come forward. That silence is chilling.


Green said...

You know I'm going to rush home on my lunch hour and tell the library to reserve this book for me, right?

Susan said...

It's amazing what gets press coverage and what doesn't. Last May, a cute blond co-ed was strangled in her off-campus apartment. Not only did it make local news, it was all over the national news. The case has been solved. A couple weeks later, a young black college graduate was killed in her home. It made local news for a little while, but never national news. I couldn't tell you if it's been solved, because it's fallen off even the local news radar now.

Anonymous said...


I'm in the middle of this book - I had to skip your post for fear of spoilers but will come back and read with great interest when I finish! Can't wait!!

Jen G in LA

Freewheel said...

I look forward to reading this book. About 10 years ago, two women hiking on the Appalachian trail were killed by a deranged man. I hope these types of incidents don't discourage women who like to backpack, hike, and camp.

Anonymous said...

I am finding this book difficult to read. The use of emotive ploys and the inconsistent narrative timeline are disconcerting. I think this would have been a more compelling story if told more simply.

Lynn said...

Interesting, I read it at about the same time and wanted to get other people to talk about it with me, so now it's the current book discussion on the Ship of Fools bulletin board (heh heh).

The disjointed time worked for me because it illustrated the way post traumatic stress impacted her life - it stopped being a straightforward "this happened, and then this, and then this" kind of life - things got buried and didn't come back up to the surface for years. Fascinating, in and of itself. I think it's beautifully written, but that's just me.