blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
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Review | A Series of Small Maneuvers, by Eliot Treichel
Ooligan Press, 2015

spacer A Series of Small Maneuvers (Ooligan Press, 2015)

In A Series of Small Maneuvers, rivers function as a kind of lifeblood, a call to explore something more powerful and dangerous than ourselves. Here, rivers become verbs: “To river was to act with grace, to bend, to flow. . . . It was to dance.” For the Wilson family, navigating treacherous waters is tradition; as their fifteen-year-old daughter Emma puts it, her family “actually believed in camping,” but that faith finally sours after one fateful outing. In his debut novel, Eliot Treichel has crafted an engrossing, moving portrait of grief through the eyes of Emma, who loses her father in a sudden accident after the two of them embark on a camping trip up the Rio Tinto (a fictionalized roaring river somewhere in New Mexico). Days from civilization and left to fend for herself, Emma tries to find her way downriver, leaving behind her father’s body in order to rejoin the world of the living back home with her mother and sister. Told in two interlocking timelines, A Series of Small Maneuvers takes us on a harrowing, poignant journey that soars with raw emotional power and endearing, complex characters, and the end result is a fantastic survival story told with style and heart.

Treichel’s book hinges on the complex relationships between Emma and her family, which places it at odds with many coming-of-age survival stories, a genre that often focuses entirely on the central characters’ isolation and evolution into hardened men and women of the wilds. But although A Series of Small Maneuvers is compelling, gritty material in the manner of other survivalist classics like Hatchet (Bradbury Press, 1987) or Island of the Blue Dolphins (Riverside Press, 1960), Treichel focuses equally on the concept of “reentry,” the process of moving “from one wilderness to the next.” That wilderness is manifold, and as the novel progresses, we’re treated to the twin stories of Emma making her way off the mountain and her attempt to reform an identity without her father, growing into someone new as she grieves. Early on, Treichel maps out Emma’s relationship with her father as rocky terrain: he can be overbearing, frustrating, prying, and judgmental in a New Age-y way, so confident in Emma’s ability to chart her own course that he tends to sneer at her conventional habits, like her first attempts at wearing makeup. But those moments echo louder because they’ve ballooned in Emma’s own head, and as father and daughter journey up the mountain together, Emma makes an effort to match her father’s curiosity and excitement for the outdoors. At times, the connection feels superficial to Emma, but more often she finds herself reflecting on her father’s words, on the inherent beauty of the wild, the places “that connected everything together . . . treated with something close to sanctity.”

That sense of connection changes when Emma’s father climbs on a fallen tree and stumbles, knocked off-balance after Emma kicks the base in frustration. Her father falls, hits his head, and never recovers. For the rest of the novel, Emma’s guilt suspends her in the moment of loss, retreading the same ground without a clear sense of direction. She says she feels misplaced, torn between the world that must come after the brutal loss and the immediate, visceral trauma of having to fend for herself in the rapids. In some ways, the trauma of survival is more comforting, familiar in a way that no one but Emma’s father could quite understand; even after returning to safety, Emma finds herself missing “the silence of open, empty land—a silence that would get harder and harder to know.”

Emma’s arc begins with her struggle to speak honestly with her father; too often, she finds herself retreating into noncommittal silence, and his attempts to pull answers out of her often lead to frustration on both sides. Her narration, however, forms an impression of a girl fighting for agency and meaning, motivated by a desire to take her parents’ advice and mold it into something new, something that’s hers. The novel works as an engrossing coming-of-age story due in large part to the winsome, honest voice of Emma, which Treichel handles with a steady hand. Emma shies and squirms from the idea of spending quality time with her father, but Treichel’s characterization, veined with nuance and a tender understanding of human relationships, makes it clear her reticence isn’t just grandstanding teenage rebellion.

There’s an earnest energy to her narration that brings real gravity to questions of identity, spirituality, connection, and longing. Treichel couches those questions so effortlessly in Emma’s story that the book never betrays the emotional integrity of its characters or its readers. The book grounds us in our narrator’s harrowing grief without pushing us too far down; many moments in the book are heart-wrenching, but there’s a light rhythm that makes it possible for us to come up for air. Treichel reworks the same images again and again and manages to infuse them with new meaning, just as water can become a fresh language to anyone who has studied it long enough: “It’s all the same water,” Emma’s father says, “with a million personalities. . . . Water is where we’re born.”

A Series of Small Maneuvers makes much of the father’s ability to “read” water after spending his whole life learning how to spot eddies and currents, boulders under the waves. That longing for language, for understanding, motivates every thread in the novel. At times, the absence of language actually helps the characters; silence works as a space where terror and understanding blur together, creating pockets of time where the characters can begin to recover by facing their fears alone. On the mountain, the intense stillness and solitude becomes another kind of death for Emma, which she can only make sense of as something physical, weighted in her bones even after her ordeal seems to have ended:

The world seemed muted again. I could still hear the hum of the road and the wind pushing against the car, but the place where I heard those things seemed to shift from my ears to my body. In some ways it felt like being underwater, cut off from air. I started thinking back to the river, to the day I lost the canoe—the cold shock of going under, the burn of the water up my nose and the way my muscles cramped as I swam for shore, the way I just wanted to let go.

Treichel manages to capture Emma’s love and fear between the silences, expanding each small moment into something profound, tender, and utterly believable. The Wilsons cannot always connect to one another directly; they strain to find ways of voicing their deepest emotions, but a hunger for family is always there, driven by the fragile but desperate need to belong to one another. They adopt the language of nature—mysterious and huge and brutal—just to come close to saying what they need to say:

“I’m scared of how scared I’m going to be [when I die].” My dad’s head bonked against the window, and I could see he was looking up at the stars. “I’m so afraid of finding out what a coward I am.”

. . . One time my dad told me that looking up at the sky was the best way to remember that we’re human, that we’re all trapped inside a body. I leaned over so I could look out the side window, and when my dad heard me moving around he said, “There’s the Milky Way. That’s where we live.”

The Wilsons have a way of making a home out of these ancient, seemingly unfeeling things—stars, rivers, trees. They do it even knowing how dangerous they can be, even when the earth they love has stripped everything from them. Emma comes to believe that “hell is dark and cold and solitary,”like the kind of night that she spends starving and freezing on the mountain. Her journey back to civilization brings with it a loss deeper than even the death of her father, but Emma somehow manages to find herself again by making temporary homes out of the rocks and rivers, connecting herself to the memories of her father and to much older histories that she can touch: “My handprint would be a pictograph, the same kind my dad showed me earlier in the trip. He took my hand and held it up so that it matched the one on the wall, saying, ‘See, this was you in another life. Like a thousand years ago, this was you.’” Even in the coldest, loneliest places, the world of A Series of Small Maneuvers feels expansive with a kind of love that transcends time and distance. This world can be ugly and imperfect and wild, but it’s always—Emma reminds herself—navigable. The river never ends. We just learn how to step out of it.  

Eliot Treichel is the author of the young adult novel A Series of Small Maneuvers (Ooligan Press, 2015) and the short story collection Close is Fine (Ooligan Press, 2012). His work has appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, Passages North, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere.

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