I've sat on this review for a couple of weeks, wondering if I'd come to some more sophisticated response than "What a lovely, compelling, strangely unassuming little fiction. . . ." And I don't think I've stopped thinking about the story, yet overselling will rebound against it--not a lot really happens, it's a tale in a tale--and even the inmost tale is more essayistic, impressionistic than plot-driven. Yet there's a deeper sense of world, and purpose, than many fictions far more densely-packed with incident.
Nutshell: a young girl travels from the Twin Cities to her grandmother's house in South Dakota. We're some time at some short distance into the future--a century?--after climactic and economic events seem to have come to a head, and a more sustainable, local culture has emerged. Grandmother recounts the history of the mammoths, which roamed the plains, dazzling Lewis and Clark, standing tall in the lives and legends of the tribes from which she'd descended. And, despite conservation efforts--which grandmother herself aids, seeking to secure some DNA for eventual cloning--the mammoths die.
Again, there's a rich historical sweep, subtly conveyed--the details of this alternate world are not grandly distinct, aside from the mammoths, and the narrative is full of cameos from our own historical record. But grandmother's tale is not so much a revelation of fantastic alterity but rather an argument for how we should attend to history, how conditions shape and reshape lives, how cultures and creatures suffer in the changes from colonization, industrialization, globalization. . . And yet a definite political frame never crowds out the small details of a life, of a tale told in an afternoon between two women of different generations.
The edition I grabbed included an essay--more of a rant, which I kind of adored, 'though I lean as left as Arnason and it may not grab all readers the same way ('though, again, the novella does a lovely job of having a point of view but never occluding the characters' sensibilities)--and an interview. Together, they brought my attention to a writer who lives in the same Cities as me, and has a rich, well-received oeuvre--yet I've not heard of her before. And that's my shame, which I'll now transform into delight, because I have her whole library to explore and enjoy. Arnason writes sci-fi in the same vein as Kim Robinson and Ursula LeGuin--concerned with history, politics, culture, and most of all people.