Humor as well as danger, love as well as longing, and reconciliation as well as lingering spite

LITERARY/HISTORICAL FICTION

Michael Parker

Prairie Fever

Algonquin Books

Hardcover (also available as an ebook and audio book), 978-1-61620-853-0, 320 pgs., $26.95

May 21, 2019

 

Austin writer Michael Parker’s eloquent new novel, Prairie Fever, examines how the strong bond between two teen sisters falls apart after they are drawn to their new schoolteacher and both have relationships with him. Yet, following this rift, the sisters remain distantly connected through their prairie roots, even after each has settled in separate places, married, and had children.

 

Starting out in rural Oklahoma in the early 1900s, Parker’s ninth book examines life, love, gossip, and news through the eyes of Elise Stewart and her slightly older sister, Lorena Stewart, who live with their parents on a 160-acre cotton farm in a tiny community named Lone Wolf.

 

The sisters initially are so close, physically and emotionally, that they ride the same horse four miles to school each day, pinned together in a big blanket that shields them from some of the snow and wind. To entertain each other, they quote stories they have memorized while reading their county newspaper. (Interestingly, the author uses actual brief newspaper reports from West Texas and western Oklahoma, published between 1900 and 1920, in this novel.)

 

At school, both sisters become attracted to Gus McQueen, eighteen, who is just out of high school. His main qualifications as a teacher are that he knows how to memorize interesting things and repeat them. He does not yet know how to explain their significance, nor how to instruct students in “how one ought to go about living one’s life.” This is because, he admits to himself, he has grown up understanding “next to nothing.” But he realizes he has begun to notice the Stewart sisters.

 

The book’s title carries multiple meanings. Elise and Lorena had two young brothers who died of “prairie fever,” likely typhoid. But Elise loves the prairie that surrounds them: “It is the opposite for me of what it was for my poor dead brothers and my addled mother. . . . It is not death but life. I love the wind and the way it makes everything slap and creak and whistle.

 

For Lorena, meanwhile, the point of life is knowing your limitations. This belief is magnified after Elise goes off on her own in a blizzard, gets lost, and Lorena saves her life, only to have Gus McQueen turn away from her. Lorena dreams of living in Chicago, amid “glamour and city lights.” Yet, she cannot shake free of her prairie past, nor her admiration for “the sort of plainspoken, honest, heartfelt people around whom I was raised.”

 

With six other novels and three short story collections to his credit, the author has shown readers that he is a masterful storyteller with a knack for creating memorable characters, intriguing situations, and revealing dialogue and descriptions. When he is not in Austin, Michael Parker taught for thirty years in the MFA writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is now on the faculty of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. He also writes nonfiction and has appeared in a diverse array of publications ranging from the Washington Post to Runner’s World.

 

In Prairie Fever, there is humor as well as danger, love as well as longing, and reconciliation as well as lingering spite. It’s splendid reading.

 

Michael Parker is the author of seven novels—Hello Down There, Towns Without Rivers, Virginia Lovers, If You Want Me To Stay, The Watery Part of the World, All I Have In This World, and Prairie Fever—and three collections of stories, The Geographical Cure, Don’t Make Me Stop Now, and Everything, Then and Since.

 

His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various journals including Five Points, the Georgia Review, The Southwest Review, Epoch, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Oxford American, New England Review, Southwest Review, Trail Runner, Runner’s World, and Men's Journal. He has received fellowships in fiction from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Hobson Award for Arts and Letters, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. His work has been anthologized in the Pushcart and New Stories from the South anthologies, and he is a three-time winner of the O. Henry Award for short fiction. 

 

A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia, he taught for nearly thirty years in the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Since 2009 he has been on the faculty of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. He lives in Saxapahaw, North Carolina and Austin, Texas.