The Ride of Her Life, by Elizabeth Letts*****

Elizabeth Letts has become one of my drop-everything authors. Instead of writing about the same historical figures that everybody else writes about, she finds noteworthy women that have fallen through the cracks of history. The Ride of Her Life chronicles the latter years of Annie Wilkins, a senior citizen that given not long to live, and not much to lose, decides to embark on a cross-country journey on horseback so that she can see the Pacific Ocean before she dies. I was invited to read and review this remarkable novel by Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It’s for sale now.

Annie Wilkins lives in rural Maine, and is endeavoring to continue to run the family farm. It hasn’t gone well. Between a series of events beyond her control and an aging body, she falls behind, and then more so, until the bank gives notice of foreclosure. At the same time her lungs aren’t doing well; the doctor gives her two or three years to live, but only if she does so restfully. She is offered a place at the county home, which is essentially a charity lodging for the indigent.

Under similar circumstances and with no family to fall back on, most of us would have sold the farm and gone to rest in the county poorhouse, but Annie is not like most people. She sells up, and she plans her next move carefully. She packs up the things she and her dog will need for their trip, and since the purchase and maintenance of a car are beyond her means, she buys a good horse. That’s it. She packs up her maps and gets on the horse. (The dog alternates between walking and riding.)

Part of the joy in reading of her adventures is the window it provides into the United States in 1954, before most of us were born. For those outside of cities, horseback travel is still not unusual; Annie’s greatest challenge, of course, is her lack of awareness about highway safety. Her initial plan is to ride alongside the road when possible, and on the shoulder when it isn’t, but there are a host of dangers out there, and almost everything that can happen to her, does. But people are essentially goodhearted, and in every instance, someone kind and decent comes along and does right by her and her critters.

In the polarized time in which we live, this is exactly the story we need. I suspect that if Annie were to do the same thing today, there would still be people that would come along, and without inquiring who she voted for in the most recent election or whether she has received a vaccine, would feed her, or offer up their guest room for a night or two, or would drive her to the hospital. Those people were there then; their descendants are here still. We have not changed all that much.

Letts has told an engaging story, but part of my mad respect for her has to do with her attention to detail. The very best historical fiction is essentially true, with dialogue added for interest, and Letts writes the best, no doubt about it. Her endnotes are impressive, and she tells us that she drove more than 10,000 miles while researching her book.

Because I had fallen behind with my reviews, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and alternated it with my digital galley. Both are outstanding; you can’t go wrong either way. Highly recommended!

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling*****

How much would you pay right now to laugh out loud, and laugh hard, about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with current events? Exactly. My thanks go to Net Galley and Perseus Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The author is a journalist who caught wind of a tiny hamlet in New Hampshire that was taken over by libertarians:

“The four libertarians who came to New Hampshire had thinner wallets than…other would-be utopians, but they had a new angle they believed would help them move the Free Town Project out of the realm of marijuana-hazed reveries and into reality. Instead of building from scratch, they would harness the power and infrastructure of an existing town—just as a rabies parasite can co-opt the brain of a much larger organism and force it work against its own interests, the libertarians planned to apply just a bit of pressure in such a way that an entire town could be steered toward liberty.” 

By the time the long-term denizens of Grafton realized the extent of the mayhem that these people intended, they discovered that “the libertarians were operating under vampire rules—the invitation to enter, once offered, could not be rescinded…At the same time the Free Towners set themselves to shaping the community to their liking, the town’s bears were working to create their own utopia.”

The newcomers’ idea of liberty meant no enforcement of any law, and no taxes, even for basic infrastructure and services. And when the local bear population blossomed, it was every Free Towner for herself.

Hongoltz-Hetling provides a succinct history of the town, then introduces a handful of the key players. There’s a man that buys and lives in a church in order to avoid paying taxes; an Earth Mother type that decides the bears are hungry and should receive free donuts, seeds, and grains daily in her own backyard; several tent dwellers that eschew basic hygiene and food safety; and oh, so many, many bears. Some of the townspeople are identified by name, but those that prefer anonymity are identified by colorful nicknames.

At the outset we see jaw-dropping levels of eccentricity coupled with hilarious anecdotes, and true to his journalistic calling, the author spends a good deal of time in this tiny, lawless burg, and so he reports events not second hand, but from his own experience. My favorite part is the showdown between Hurricane the Guard Llama and an ursine interloper looking for mutton on the hoof. Another is the conflict between “Beretta,” the resident next door to “Doughnut Lady,” who hates all bears primarily because they are fat.

Eventually things take a darker, more tragic turn for some; the most impressive aspect of this story is the seamless manner in which the author segues from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, and then brings us back up for air.

Ultimately, the bears are emblematic of the need human beings have for cooperation and organization.

Though the material used for this story is rich and original, it takes a gifted wordsmith like Hongoltz-Hetling to craft it into a darkly amusing tale of this caliber. If I were to change one thing, I would lose the digression near the middle of the book with regard to typhus, Tunisia, and diseases shared by bears. It slows the pace and could easily be whittled down to a single paragraph. But the rest of this book is so engaging that I cannot reduce my rating by even half a star. My advice is to skim that passage, which eats up about five percent of an otherwise perfectly executed narrative, unless of course you like that aspect of it.

In six years of reviewing, and out of the 666 reviews I have provided to Net Galley—and yes, that’s the actual number, until I turn this review in—I have purchased fewer than one percent of the books I’ve read, either to give as gifts, or to keep. That said, this book is going under my Christmas tree this December. If you read it, you’re bound to agree: the story of Grafton is the best surprise of 2020.

Do it.