Review of Martin Marten

Feeling like you could really go for a quiet week in front of a woodstove in the mossy woods right about now, but you can’t actually physically make it happen? Then allow me to recommend my friend Brian Doyle’s latest meditation on community, baring witness, and life in the wild, rural Pacific Northwest, which I reviewed in the  September/October 2015 issue of Orion Magazine. 

Martin Marten
By Brian Doyle
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2015.
$24.99, 310 pages.

 “There are more stories in the space of a single second, in a single square floor of dirt and air and water, than we could tell each other in a hundred years. . . .” Brian Doyle systematically proves this concept in his charming new novel, Martin Marten, chronicling modern daily life on a single mountain in Oregon.

Wy’east, which you may know as Mount Hood, is home to the tiny town of Zigzag—little more than “a gaggle of cabins relieved by the occasional larger structure, none taller than two stories.” This is a place with “more than one hermit.” So old-timey and unplugged is the vibe here the odd reference to earbuds and iPads actually feels jarring. You can practically smell the woodsmoke.

This is where our protagonist Dave, a gangly, earnest, wood-smitten teenager lives with his deeply intuitive, nature-loving little sister, and their broke but hard-working parents. Their neighbors include a host of eccentric local characters—the quirky shopkeeper, the thoughtful trapper, the reckless but tender bicycler—all of whom offer Dave unique insight in this coming-of-age tale.

But the Wy’east community is far from limited to its human inhabitants. For to Doyle, a good story may be ranked on its ability to invoke inspiration or astonishment, but never on the stature, or indeed even species, of its hero. The result is a woven narrative reminiscent of the writing of Ernest Thompson Seton that also offers poignant glimpses into the lives of a gargantuan elk, a retired police horse, a lost pair of shoes, a dropped pencil, and the book’s titular character—a young pine marten of “a dark burnished golden color utterly not the color brown,” named Martin.

When Doyle describes a single day’s activity it might include parents going over the family budget, or shy teenagers occasionally jostling shoulders “seemingly by accident but not.” But equal attention is given to “a bobcat mother cuffing her sons and a kestrel father ever so gently handing the large intestine of a vole to his daughters. . . .”

The chapters alternate between human and animal perspectives as they meander along in Doyle’s signature whimsical and poetic tone. Reading it feels a bit like wandering through the woods all day just for the pleasure of it, with no particular plans. Indeed, at times his prose feels like the very embodiment of a marten moving through the forest—by turns playful, reverent, breathless, and fierce.

Sure, things happen in the book: there are conflicts, resolutions, births, and deaths; Dave and Martin navigate their adolescence separately but together, nurturing a mutual curiosity and fondness for each other from a close but respectful distance. But the novel isn’t exactly plot-driven. Nor does it need to be—that isn’t the point. For as much as life is about these simultaneous stories, so too is it about having the capacity and desire to notice them in the first place. “You could be sad at how many stories go untold, but you could also be delighted at how many stories we catch and share in delight.” Martin Marten honors such stories, and their telling.

—Kathleen Yale


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