The Short Version: Eli Roebuck’s mother runs off one day with a big, rather hirsute fellow named “Mr. Krantz” – whom Eli believes to be a sasquatch. He makes it his life’s mission to find the mythic beast, even as his family falters in facing their own struggles (some mythic and some mundane) around him.
The Review: One of my favorite books, for its sheer ingenuity and seasonal perfection, is a book called Of Bees and Mist. The world of that novel, very much like our own except different (magic, creatures, etc all exist but rather without comment), was a stirring creation that redeemed the book’s occasional flaws. And as I read The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, I was reminded intensely of that novel and its world – or, perhaps more specifically, of how the reader was drawn so quickly into that world.
Right from the get-go, the reader is shown that sasquatch is real. This is not a novel of tilting at windmills: a big hairy dude shows up, can barely function in human society, and Eli’s mother swans off with him for good. There are moments where characters infer that maybe Eli was allowing his imagination to get the better of a really traumatic situation – but when a strange curiosity shop appears later in the novel, or a lake monster, or a unicorn… well, we just pretty much accept these things matter-of-factly. And that, I think, is a real narrative gift. It’s easy to say “wow, look, a unicorn!” but the reader, in those circumstances (even in the best-written instances) will always be a little removed from the moment because of that exclamatory WOW factor. It’s strange and so we must be awed by it! Whereas this novel has strange things in abundance but they are just a part of the lives of these characters – even if the world around them doesn’t necessarily embrace any of it. It’s the paradoxical effect of making everything more magical by allowing it to be almost mundane.
None of the characters really leap out at the reader, though. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, and they all are certainly individuals – but they’ve already begun to recede a little bit. The youngest daughter (Eli’s second) is a typical mopey teen, while the older daughter (from the weird first marriage) is angsty. The first wife is batty, the second wife buxom and ditzy. We don’t really ever get too deep into their psyches, with perhaps the exception of Eli: Eli, our sasquatch hunter. A man who never gives up on his passion but who changes over the course of his life because of said passion. But even then, it isn’t all that deep.
And this, again, is okay – because of the type of story we’re reading. We don’t go to fairy tales for intense character development. Or maybe you do, nowadays, with all the desire for political correctness and blah blah blah. But this is a throwback of sorts: we’re here for the adventures, not for the post-modern character studies. With this in mind, the book is smart to split its narrative into pretty bite-sized chapters, which take place over the course of about 70 years. They also alternate perspectives, which has the added effect of enhancing the enchanting world even as it keeps us a little bit at arm’s distance from the characters’ hearts. Some chapters function as essentially isolated short stories; I would say, for example, that the chapter where Gladys finds the (really freakin’ cool) curiosity shop and comes away with the patchwork cap could exist outside the framework of the novel with very little tweaking. Even stories that rely on the reader’s knowledge of earlier moments come away as vignette-y at times – I’m thinking specifically of Ginger’s trip to Spain, of the unicorn chapter, of the ridiculous and wild scene with the eagle (which is seared into my brain, I think).
But at the end of the day, I realized something: I wanted more. It’s rare that somebody says something like this, but I think it’s true to say that I might’ve been happier if this book had been twice as long and had gone farther into the weird, magical version of our world that it inhabits. We get plenty of time devoted to Mr. Krantz – chapters from his point of view, even – but what about the fact that this universe seems to have magic all around it? Instead of getting these short bursts of strange lake monster-men and odd goings-on, what if it all built together into a larger construction. Even as I tout the easy-going oddity of this novel, I almost wish we had to work harder for it because I just want to know more. Not even know, but experience. I want to see the moments in-between these chapters, I want to see the characters develop and flesh out into truly three-dimensional beings, I want to get a glimpse into the wider weirder world here… And while the narrative of hunting the sasquatch (I use ‘hunt’ loosely, by the way) is the main thrust of the story, that doesn’t mean we couldn’t enjoy further diversions. There is magic in this world and I wanted to see more of it.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A lovely debut, full of whimsy (good whimsy) and magic. Shields has a light touch, which benefits the story by keeping it honest. Sasquatch is established right off the bat and, as such, we already know a ton about the world we’re about to visit. Combined with easy-going prose and the right dash of both humor and pathos, you end up with a delightful (if not terribly impactful) story. I only wish it had gone even farther into itself, for then it might’ve been something truly exceptional.