Male protagonists usually come of age by becoming adventurers, while their womanly counterparts tend to do the same by quietly searching their souls. Creating a heroine who follows both paths is but one of the strengths of Kate Wheeler’s brave, expansive first novel, When Mountains Walked, her follow-up to the much acclaimed story collection Not Where I Started From. Wheeler’s insight is that nearly drowning in a swift river holds nothing on the potential danger wielded by an uncertain heart.
Maggie Goodwin has left the United States to travel to Peru with her husband, Carson. She’s there to help him open a clinic in a remote river canyon community called Piedras, which is afflicted by poverty and superstition—not to mention a series of birth defects and health problems that are gradually linked to water poisoned by the local mine. The duo met at Harvard, where Carson was Maggie’s first husband’s graduate student, and they exhibit some of the tentativeness of a couple born of illicit passion. At first, their physical connection is potent and tactile. Maggie notices every detail about Carson; when he rolls up his pants to wade in the water, she observes his “calves as pale as fish and covered with long, dark, fine French hairs.” However, sexual chemistry can’t compensate for a power dynamic where the self-absorbed Carson is forever the leader and decision-maker, with Maggie a humbled, frustrated second.
History has long dealt women this subservient role, especially when they’ve settled abroad in cultures that are less than liberated. Wheeler makes this point forcefully by flashing back periodically to the life of Maggie’s feisty grandmother Althea, who ventured to the same region in Peru in the 1930s with her seismologist husband. Althea, too, was tied to a domi- neering, willful man, and Maggie becomes haunted by a parallel sense of destiny. As her desire to have a child grows, she obsesses on how Althea lost a son to cholera, brought on by water tainted in the aftermath of an earthquake. The notion of rupturing, so concrete and devastating in Althea’s life, becomes metaphorical for Maggie as her ordered universe begins to shift and lurch beneath her feet.
These connections become even more freighted when Maggie finds herself attracted to a Peruvian revolutionary named Vicente, just as her grandmother fell for her own charismatic male “other,” a Hindu priest, long ago in India. Both women wind up engaged in passionate affairs, often sleeping with their husbands directly after their trysts to assuage guilt as well as create a kind of paternity crapshoot.
In less nimble hands, such crisscrossing affinities could easily become overwrought, especially when Maggie is summoned from Peru to visit Althea on her deathbed. But Wheeler makes the links between grandmother and granddaughter seem as organic as the landscape and weather she evokes with such pungency and grace. The very air in Piedras seems thick and redolent; why, then, shouldn’t characters’ lives be the same? Indeed, the novel is as much a dense lyric of place as it is an exploration of Maggie’s fate. Our protagonist’s sense of simply existing day to day infuses the novel: “Days passed slowly, slowly, like crawling across a plain of gleaming knives. Maggie wanted to kiss the nights when they descended, bringing coolness, the scent of leaves, wet dirt, and flowers, and dissolving the canyon walls.”
Yet Maggie also helps unleash a series of events that lead When Mountains Walked to a pulse-pounding conclusion, where Maggie, her husband, and her lover find out exactly what comes of asking too many questions in the wrong places, when simple investigative zeal suddenly becomes life-threatening. Wheeler refuses to let mere action resolve her character’s deeper questings, whether it be for the truth about her grandmother’s existence or about who makes the most true and compatible lover. Toward the end of the book, Wheeler writes:
Maggie’s soul had been haunted by deficits, shadows, and unknown things far more than by the facts that everyone knew and accepted. Secrets and absences could control a person’s life. They’d pulled her here, to Piedras. She’d believed that when the secrets got explained, the hole in her soul would be filled in.
Needless to say, such closure is not to be. Wheeler based When Mountains Walked in part on her grandmother’s journey to the Amazon, as well as on her own experiences as a travel writer, but she strenuously disclaims connections to the concrete world in an Author’s Note at the end of her novel. For her, the balance between fact and fiction, between striding solidly up a hill and then dreaming at the top, is what truly drives the universe.