by Hugh Gilmore
For nearly 20 summers I’ve been getting to know and admire a woman named Anna Pigeon. She’s a National Parks ranger and has worked in 19 of them.
When I first met her, back in 1993, she was a single, middle-aged widow living in east Texas. She missed her husband a lot and occasionally showed too much fondness for red wine. Often she made late-night calls to her psychiatrist sister in New York, whom she could count on for advice or at least a semi-sympathetic ear.
Anna’s troubles were similar to those of many late-30s/early 40s newly singled women. She felt lonely at times, but happy to be on her own. Sometimes, especially when she saw an injustice, she had a powerful, somewhat hasty need to set things right, even a temper at times. She enjoyed feeling useful and was awed by the beauty of nature – the more isolated and grander the setting, the better. Down deep she was very self assured, with a big “do not disturb” sign on her emotions.
I first made her acquaintance in 1993 in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas. She was there defending a population of mountain lions that had been accused of killing one of her fellow rangers (“Track of the Cat”). In the following year, 1994, she was assigned to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, Mich. (“A Superior Death”). The isle is famous as a place for deep-water dives to explore sunken vessels. On one such dive Anna found evidence of an underwater murder. Exposing herself to shadowy danger, she nearly lost her own life, but managed to bring the murderer to justice.
Fascinating mysteries and mind-bending ruminations followed nearly every year: in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado (“Ill Wind,” 1995); Lassen Volcanic National Park in California (“Firestorm,” 1996); Cumberland Island National Seashore off the coast of Georgia (“Endangered Species,” 1997); Carlsbad Caverns National Park (“Blind Descent,” 1998); Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island National Monuments (“Liberty Falling,” 1999 – my favorite – absolutely, masterfully, creepy) and, final example, Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi (“Deep South,” 2000). There are over a dozen more.
I guess it’s obvious by now that I don’t personally know Anna Pigeon, and that she’s a fictional person. But that’s one of the wonderful, magical tricks an author can produce in this world – create a fictional character you feel you know personally. Anna’s creator is a superb writer named Nevada Barr.
That’s the real name her eccentric mother gave her. Barr was born in Yerington, Nevada, and grew up for a while on a mountain airport in the Sierras. She went to college in California and majored to master’s level in theater. For almost 20 years she worked as a stage and voice actor, much of it in New York City.
On her website she says her bread-and-butter income in those days came from acting in business decorum-training films. After a while she started spending her summer slack time working both part- and full-time in several of the national parks. She began writing in the 1980s, but her first Anna Pigeon book did not appear until 1993’s “Track of the Cat.” (Not to be confused with a 1954 Robert Mitchum movie of the same name).
This isn’t the usual thing to say, but I think that excellent plotting is something one can almost take for granted in contemporary mystery writing. Most of the books (and TV shows) that work their ways through today’s highly competitive publishing thickets have good plots. That’s probably why so many of them try to outdo one another by creating outrageous, gross, sickening means to kill off their characters. Most of Nevada Barr’s plots are terrific, but avoid such excess.
She also creates compelling characters and masterful dialogue, while giving the reader admission backstage to America’s national park management – out there in the fields and canyons and mountain tops where the deer and the antelope and the tourists roam. What a challenge it is, trying to keep the public educated and safe while keeping the dunderheads from destroying the parks.
Whether it’s patrolling the creepy passageways of the Statue of Liberty, or walking the dark beaches where vulnerable turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, Anna Pigeon wears a Philip Marlowe-like cloak of bravery and determination.
Since I first met her, I’ve had to wait year-by-year for each new story to come out, but those of you who haven’t read her yet can treat yourself to a mighty binge. Her latest, “Boar Island” (2016), is set on a small island just outside America’s most-visited national park, Acadia National Park in coastal Maine.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of that great bibliomaniac’s noir mystery “Malcolm’s Wine.” Too hot to read on sand.