Smack dab in the middle of Peter Heller’s new novel, Celine (also the title of the novel), the middle-aged private investigator protagonist, muses about love: “She thought that peace reigned in the world–might reign. But only where love had no ferocity. Where there was the love between mothers and fathers and children there would be not peace.” Yet, I don’t think that this type of world is what Heller, or Celine, actually wants. Their interest lies with ferocious love.
Celine isn’t your typical crime-solver; she finds “the missing, the ones who could not be found.” In this case, she searches for the father of Gabriela, a fellow Sarah Lawrence alumnus, who has been presumed dead for twenty years. Gabriela still thinks he might be alive; he disappeared on the northern end of Yellowstone National Park, leaving only a smear of blood and some bear tracks behind. When she was a teenager, Celine lost a child herself to a forced adoption so she understands what it’s like to be missing a part of one’s family. Thus, Celine and her husband Pete, who’d been living in Brooklyn, fly out to Denver to embark on a road trip to Wyoming.
This road trip mirrors one that I took with my friend from college last summer. In my mom’s old Rendezvous, Wesley and I cruised from Denver to the Wyoming plains, blaring country music and watching the horizon. We stopped at those lone gas stations and diners filled with the no-bullshit, but ultimately well-meaning Western characters that Heller portrays so accurately. Like Celine and Pete, Wesley and I camped in Lander before heading to Jackson Hole. In Celine, Heller uses prose that, in its simplicity, verges on poetry, allowing the outdoor spaces of the American West to breath. As Celine and Pete arrive in Jackson Hole, he writes about the Tetons:
The water is black and the peaks are dusted with new snow and the cottonwoods along the banks are yellow, their smoldering ranks throwing the scale of the mountains into perspective… and there may be one man fishing… his fly rod bent back mid-cast... only to remind us that the grandeur and shocking beauty are not of human scale.
Having grown up in Colorado, I appreciate Heller’s descriptions. Now, as I attend college in Connecticut, I miss Home, and I don’t just mean the beautiful mountains. Similarly, the heart of Heller’s novel lies in the people that momentarily inhabit these environments together, not the environments themselves. It’s the quiet mornings when Celine and Pete share coffee at the campsite that I read for. I understand; the nights when Wesley and I settled in by the campfire with a good book were what made our trip so special.
Celine and Peter are being followed by a young ex-military man. Somebody has a stake in keeping the mystery of Gabriela’s father unsolved. But I keep reading for the way that the characters in the story are constantly searching for family. The way that families are formed and dissolved and reformed again. The way that ferocious love, somehow, prevails.
The search for Gabriela’s father ends, fittingly, in the wilderness of Montana. I thought of Wesley, and the way that I’ve found some of my best friends–family actually–in our wilderness. Finding Home in the Rockies. –Sage Marshall
Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations.
By Peter Heller