Deep South, by Nevada Barr

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Looking to change up her life, Ranger Anna Pigeon accepts a promotion that takes her away from her beloved Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado to the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. Driving deep into the tangled darkness, Anna finds her car sliding off the road. Then she learns that the directions she’d been following, provided by one of the rangers who will be working for her, had sent her down a little-used road that led nowhere. Is it a prank? Or something more ominous?

Anna struggles to adjust to her new role as chief in a culture where women are not expected to hold positions of authority. At the same time, the culture calls for men—even teenaged boys—to be respectful towards women. Anna stumbles across a group of Civil War re-enactors, a good introduction to Faulkner’s home state, the man who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Then she stumbles upon a particularly gruesome murder and it is up to her to solve it.

I’ve long been a fan of Barr’s series, that takes Pigeon to national parks around the country. I’d read this book a dozen years ago, but have been rereading—or rather listening to—the whole series. I’ve been on the road a lot the last few months, and these books make the miles fly by. It also seemed appropriate to reread these books starting last year, which was the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Park Service.

I remember hearing Barr speak, I think in 1998. She said that when she decided to write a mystery, she took a handful of her favorite mysteries and spent a long time studying and deconstructing them. Her process obviously worked well, because her first Anna Pigeon mystery, Track of the Cat, was a bestseller as have been the rest in the series.

As I’ve mentioned before, writers often debate about process. Is it better to plot out your story before starting to write or just start writing (known as “pantsing”, as in writing by the seat of your pants)? The answer is yes. Whatever works for you. And writers sometimes find that their process changes with each new writing project.

Another debate centers around training. Is it better to start by getting an MFA in creative writing or study the many craft books available? Or is it better to follow Barr’s path of reading intensively as a writer, studying books that have worked? Again, there are many paths to your goal. I don’t have an MFA, but I’ve taken a few workshops. I’ve learned a great deal from writing craft books as well as from reading as a writer (the original concept for this blog).

Perhaps most valuable of all has been engaging in critique groups. This involves not just reading a variety of work and having to think critically about it, but also hearing how other people think and react to the same work.

A friend recently said that she’d stopped reading Barr’s mysteries because they got too violent. I see what she means. As I’m proceeding through the series, it is not the violence of the murder, which is expected, but the violence Anna Pigeon encounters that strikes me.

Still, I love the descriptions of the parks, the complex characters both new and repeated, and Anna herself with all her doubts and strengths. She continues to hold my interest. And Barr does suspense well, so well that I find myself at the end of a roadtrip that seems to have taken no time at all.

Which national park–in the U.S. or another country–is your favorite?

4 thoughts on “Deep South, by Nevada Barr

  1. Kat says:

    I’ve just started reading your blog after our time at CGOTH and I love it!
    My favorite park I think, is one that doesn’t seem like a park at all– Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois. Could be because I met the father of my son there! We actually had an 1860 wedding. He was a Ranger there and knew a LOT about the era of Lincoln in 1860.

    I’ve not seen many Nat’l Parks but hopefully that can change.

    • barbara says:

      How sweet! Your 1860 wedding must have been gorgeous. I enjoyed our time at CGOTH-hope to see you next year.

      • Kat says:

        I had such a rough time going from class to class that I had an emotional breakdown in the basement of Hill Hall after the third period on Wednesday. I was DONE, just completely at my limits. After that very public ugly cry, things got better as I got more help at times. I fell in love with CGOTH (besides already getting loving your class) and my husband and I decided to return next year. We’ll be better prepared. I miss it all (not the food LOL) so much! Counting the days until we can go again!

        BTW, am reading your book every night before bed. I have to change that because it’s so good and so well-written that it’s keeping me up!

        • barbara says:

          I’ve been active at another similar camp for many years and know that it’s entirely normal for a first-timer to break down like that in the middle of the week, even for someone without the challenges you have to deal with. It’s such an intense experience, isn’t it? I’m glad you were able to get more help; I noticed that Walt and other volunteers were helping you.

          I’m sorry to make you miss your sleep, but thanks for the compliment!

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