If you like a good fiction feast, and are a wilderness fan, and you haven’t read Nevada Barr yet, I pity you. And I recommend you get started. Borderline, just released in April, is mystery author Nevada Barr’s 18th book, and 15th in the bestselling Anna Pigeon series.
Anna Pigeon is a feisty, independent, nature-loving, sometimes knife- or gun-wielding U.S. National Park ranger who, at the beginning of the book series, uses alcohol and her deep love of the wilderness to overcome the heartbreak of losing her young husband to a New York City taxi cab. In Track of the Cat, the first in the series, she is hunting poachers and murderers (to her mind, killers of innocent animals might be more evil) in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. In this most recent book, she’s back in Texas, this time to little-known Big Bend National Park, taking a rafting vacation down the Rio Grande with her new husband and trying to recover from the trauma of having killed a man (an evil, twisted jerk, but still, she killed a guy) in the previous book.
Nevada Barr is an excellent, nearly flawless writer, and her skill gives her books the backbone and structure they need to become great reads. I’ve read every single one of the Anna Pigeon mysteries, and am always impressed with the dedication Barr puts into her craft. Top that with a gutsy, likeable, flawed character like Anna Pigeon, and it’s no wonder the books have become bestsellers.
But it’s Barr’s intimate knowledge of and love for the wilderness her books are set in that make them great bestselling mysteries. Barr spent many years as a park ranger herself, at Isle Royale in Michigan, Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, Mesa Verde in Colorado, and then on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi — where three of her best books are coincidentally set. The passages on natural world — the heat of the Texas desert in Track of the Cat, the bone-deep freeze of Isle Royale in Winter Study, the living decay found on Ellis Island in Liberty Island — are seamlessly woven into the action and narrative, and go beyond description to make the reader feel, see, and smell through Anna Pigeon’s eyes.
Set in a park encompassing part of the Rio Grande and the U.S. border with Mexico, Borderline deals with issues of immigration, marital disjointedness, motherhood, and politics, in addition to taking readers to a brand-new park with our favorite National Park ranger. The whitewater rafting trip turns into a disaster — Anna saves a cow and a baby, in that order, but a lot of other people die. Although it’s not her job, this time, to find answers, she can’t help herself, even with an apprehensive new husband watching protectively over her shoulder. And, as usual, the answers to what’s wrong in this small, beautiful world come down to power and money: in other words, people. Anne Pigeon is less comfortable with humans than with trees and cats, which is perhaps what makes me sympathize so deeply with her character and her life.
If you want to live and breathe America’s National Parks, either before a trip to one or instead of, chuck your guidebook aside and pick up a Nevada Barr mystery. Nowhere else can you get such a deep look into the vibrant, breathing ordered chaos of the natural world.
I recommend you start with Track of the Cat, the first in the series. Also, The Poisoned Pen mystery bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona, has posted a 37-minute Q & A talk with Nevada Barr from her book tour last month. You can access it on her home page. She’s a gracious, eloquent, funny speaker, and talks a bit both about the writing process and about her visit to Big Bend National Park while researching the book.