Friday, October 12, 2012

Charles Martin’s “The Mountain Between Us”

Orthopedic surgeon Ben Payne is in Salt Like City, trying to fly to Denver before a big snowstorm hits. He meets a writer, Ashley Knox, who’s trying to get home to Atlanta for her wedding. At the last minute, the flight is cancelled. But Ben is able to find a charter pilot who will fly him to Denver, and he invites Ashley to come along.

Over the Uinta Mountains, the pilot has a heart attack, but manages to crash-land the plane before he dies. When Ben regains consciousness, he knows he has broken ribs. Ashley’s leg is broken. The snow has closed in and largely buried them.

Neither Ben nor Ashley told anyone they were taking a charter flight. The pilot didn’t tell the tower he had passengers. No one will know to look for them or a plane crash. They are out of cell phone range, and far, far from anything even suggesting human activity. From the crashed plane, Ben fashions a sled to pull Ashley, and they set out into the unknown.

Charles Martin has written a number of remarkable novels that connect place and relationship – novels like Chasing Fireflies, The Dead Don’t Dance, Maggie, Wrapped in Rain, When Crickets Cry, and Where the River Ends. Martin is as much a storyteller of landscape as he is of people and brokenness. All of his previous works have been based in the southeastern United States – Georgia, northern Florida and South Carolina, a familiar landscape for Martin. With The Mountain Between Us (published in 2010), while part of the story is based in the Jacksonville area, Martin sets most of his story in the Utah wilderness.

It’s a riveting story of survival, stripping away all the facades constructed by two people who come to depend upon each other for their very lives.

Ben is married to Rachel, with two children. Ashley is engaged to marry with two days time. They will spend the next four weeks together fighting snow, fending off mountain lions, trying to find food and shelter and somehow find civilization. And tend to their injuries.

Along the way Ashley will learn that Ben is separated from his wife, and Ben will learn that Ashley isn’t entirely convinced she should be marrying Vince. Yet each remains faithful, even as they are forced into a personal proximity to each other that most married couples don’t have. And Ashley begins to sense that Ben is carrying some deep personal pain that he won’t let go of.

Martin’s usual attention to detail – a trademark of his writing – is fully employed here, so much so that the reader is walking and crawling with them, hunting rabbits and moose, desperately trying to stay alive. It’s an unforgiving landscape, it’s winter, and the cold is felt on every page.

It’s a captivating story, written with the skill I’ve come to expect from Charles Martin.

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