Annie Dillard explores the boundaries and nature of fiction and nonfiction narrative in the Pulitzer Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, ostensibly an account of a year she spent observing nature in Virginia's Blue Ridge valley. While much of the book contains her experiences, there are passages presented as memoir that actually reflect experiences of other people. In this way Dillard expresses the universal essence of literary endeavour—that actuality is subservient to truth, that great writing reveals something about human nature and is not simply aesthetic.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek captures the beauty, violence, terror and mystery of nature, as well as man's responses to it. Dillard frequently compares wild nature to tamed nature,describing the desolation both can cause and the fear both create. There isn't a real narrative arc—chapters center around themes and each one is like a compendium of short essays—but the book is not disorganized. Where a lesser author would explain events, Dillard describes what she sees only as segue to reflections on life, death, spiritual illumination, and the myriad textures that exist in the world waiting to be seen and felt and known.
Some of her descriptions are unsettling, like the description of frogs trapped under algae in the duck pond. One story she recounts of nightmares after a flood leads indirectly to the observation that "our planet alone is a blot; our planet alone has death" of all the planets in the universe. Death figures prominently in all its forms (loss of life, destruction, erasure) and Dillard evidences a preoccupation with its pervasiveness. Life also figures prominently, and is celebrated, not only as the corollary of death but as something distinct, something good and hopeful. A Catholic Christian, Dillard is concerned with the spirituality of things, not merely their natural forms, and finds in nature not only expressions of human nature, but of God and His mysteries.
This brilliant book often reads more like a poem than a prose piece. The use of metaphor and analogy (both verbal and thematic) creates a sense of encompassing beauty, haunting and sad and joyous, that enmeshes the reader in wonder the way honeysuckle traps travelers in the woods. Truly one of the great works of the last century, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of the most profound and lovely books you will ever read.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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