by Lisa Michaels (W. W. Norton, $23.95) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 7:30 p.m. Fri., June 22
LISA MICHAELS, author of the compelling memoir Split: A Counterculture Childhood, moves between fact and fiction in her debut novel, Grand Ambition, in which newlyweds Bessie and Glen Hyde set off in a boat from central Utah in late October 1928 to navigate the Colorado River. Not only were they out to set a speed record—influenced by Charles Lindberg's airborne accomplishments the previous year—but Bessie would earn the honor of being the first woman to run the rapids of the most treacherous stretch of water in the country. Feeling eager and invincible, Bessie and Glen were imbued with the courage that came after conquering each rapid, the kind that allowed them to taste the fame and money that possibly awaited at river's end.
But they never made it. Glen's father Reith orchestrates a rescue mission that results in finding their boat, fully intact and loaded with supplies, but no trace of them. Michaels pieces together the fragments of this haunting true story by constructing the intimacies of the man and woman who put themselves in such danger without even so much as a life jacket, and in particular hones in on Bessie, who initially ignores her fears to share an adventure with her husband. Through her eyes, Glen comes alive— his wordless affections, his matter-of-factness about the risks they're taking. His strength gives Bessie her own reasons for going down the river in the first place; "She wanted to do the things she feared, to feel the bite of experience, to be seasoned and unfrivolous and strong."
As the trip advances in start-stop increments marked by rapids and rainstorms, Bessie's past is revealed in flashbacks, as is her gnawing terror of dying on the river. Michaels dissects Bessie and Glen's marriage, carefully reconstructing their passions and their breaking points. "It was about holding each other steady, about being bolstered by one another's moments of bravery and grace," Bessie surmises during their wedding ceremony, vows she comes to believe after saving Glen from drowning. In reimagining these two lives, Michaels could be writing about any couple, anywhere. The remarkable quality and newness of their bond is put to the test day in and day out on the Colorado, a turbulent subtext for the obstacles anyone finds while sharing him- or herself with another person. A paean to bravery and to commitment in the worst of circumstances, Michaels' debut novel swirls with mystery and optimism, love and unwavering trust— a grand read.