Dispatch #8: Front Country, Backcountry
My new novel, Front Country, arrived in bookstores on October 4th. After a month of public events, I've come to realize that it isn't all that easy to talk about your own novel, and it probably won't be easy to write about it, either! But I'll take advantage of this space to share some thoughts that probably won't come up in my book talks--namely, about nature in the story.
In the novel, rising ninth grader Ginny Shepard arrives in Montana for a summer backpacking trip, hopeful that her time in the mountains will provide some solace from the climate angst that's been dogging her all spring. Tennis, stellar grades, a high-powered STEM summer program--all that stuff seems pretty meaningless if the world as she knows it is about to, well, burn up. But then Ginny learns that the backpacking camp is designed for kids who need "extra support." Now she's forced to deal not just with five challenging boy trip-mates, but also with what feels like some serious parental betrayal. Can she find what she needs in the backcountry to help her thrive in the "front country" again?
I wrote the book for teens and tweens, especially those who, like Ginny, are wrestling with what it means to be growing up in a time so clouded by climate uncertainty. But the book explores many other concerns, too: friendship, parenting, identity . . . and wilderness. Many of the kids' daily activities--from setting up tents to stowing their food packs to washing their clothes in a collapsible bucket--may be totally unfamiliar to readers who have never tried backcountry camping. And how about going unplugged for a month? Swimming in icy alpine lakes? Seeing moose and bear and truly dark skies? As the story unfolds, there's a growing sense that the unpredictable and unregulated wild setting is actually a pretty ideal place for these adolescents to goof off, explore, grow, and do some big life thinking.
As I've put together my Top 100 book list, I've come to realize that these sorts of wilderness experiences aren't written about much in children's literature these days--especially not in teen fiction. A few YA fantasy titles feature imaginary wild lands, as do some scary dystopian ones. But there almost seems to be an assumption that books set in the out of doors won't appeal to high schoolers at all. So while Front Country is officially a middle reader novel, I hope it will offer even older teens the chance to immerse themselves imaginatively, as Ginny does literally, in some awesome alpine wilderness. These are some of the habitats most imperiled by climate change and most vital in protecting us from its effects. And they're also places that are, as Ginny reflects, "big enough for all of us and any questions we still had left to ask."
Front Country by Sara St. Antoine (Chronicle Books, 2022)