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American West as Make Believe: Bonnie Nadzam on "Lions"

LionsLamb author Bonnie Nadzam tackles the (broken) American Dream in her latest novel, Lions. Lions is a town on the high plains of Colorado that never lived up to its ambition. Despite this, some faithful folk remain, trying to tap into any hard-to-find promise. Here, Nadzam talks about the setting, and the heartbreaking limbo of hope.

I spent nearly two decades living in and driving around the West—remote mountain ski towns, the desert, Los Angeles, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona...but it wasn't until recently that I spent a week among the Lakota in the Black Hills, bearing witness to the genocide against them. I was there not to speak, but to listen. I'd already long appreciated much of the West as something of a Disneyland, which you can trace all the way back to Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows—long lines, spectacle, performance, exquisitely staged western "scenery" and natural resource management that answers only to a human fantasy of the natural world. By this time, I'd already written one novel about the role of deception and trickery when it comes to the romance of the American West—a place where you're more likely to find cattle and irrigated golf courses and cornfields than anything a thoughtful person would consider "wild." But it wasn't until South Dakota that I really wept over the scale of delusion and began to realize the extent to which I am a servant of even the darkest and most destructive aspects of mainstream American culture.

And yet, I know and have a few generations back in my own family immigrants who came to North America, some of them even to that legendary West, fleeing what they believed were dire situations, and in search of a better life. And my heart goes out to those seeking refuge in the US today, from all over the world, and from hardship I can hardly imagine.

Can hoping for some kind of safe haven and better life be all wrong?

What is freedom, really? And what does it mean to be trapped by false promises?

In Lions, I poured the worst of these contradictory principles into Leigh Ransom, a young white American woman who ignorantly—without any consciousness of ill will or latter-day Manifest Destiny—lives her daily life between the two exhausting extremes of excitement and depression. She, like her ancestors and peers, believes the next best thing is just over the next hill. Next, her heart beats. Next, next, next, next. In pursuit of more, she paradoxically leaves everything she has behind—including friendship, family, real love, and (because how can you turn your back on so many things without also dispensing with it), her intuition. Many readers, however, have told me they don't blame her.

Years ago, I imagined a West that was wild, expansive, and sublime. There are many things about the West I love dearly, but to really know it, and be a responsible adult in relation to it, means bearing witness, indeed, to the genocide, environmental destruction, arrogance and naiveté that make it what it is. I wanted to know what these forces look like when they show up not just across a landscape, but in the mind a heart of a young person.


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