"A deeply compelling, wonderfully crafted story."
"A deeply honest novel of life after catastrophe,
of intimacy lost and found." O Magazine
"Beautifully written and authentic in its portrayal of the unexpected fallout a family death can engender." People
Now in paperback
Garnering remarkable praise and rave reviews, award-winning writer Cheryl Strayed emphatically delivers with her debut novel, Torch, now available in paperback, the moving story of a family struck down by random fate and how it learns to heal. Writing with insight, compassion, and humor, Strayed reveals her "gift of getting to the core of the human condition" (Kirkus Reviews).
Teresa Rae Wood is a local celebrity in the town of Midden, Minnesota. Her popular radio show, Modern Pioneers!, a kind of hippie Prairie Home Companion, is an eternal embarrassment to her two almost-grown children, Claire and Joshua, and a source of amused pride to her common-law husband, Bruce. When Teresa summons Claire and Joshua home unexpectedly, they are floored by her devastating news: Teresa, only thirty-eight, is dying of cancer; seven weeks later she is gone.
Now the mundane irritations and small betrayals of family relationships loom dangerously large, as Claire, Joshua, and Bruce retreating into private worlds of sorrow just when they need one another the most seek comfort elsewhere. To his children's disbelief, Bruce quickly marries their next-door neighbor, a lonely cow inseminator. Claire drops out of college to devote herself to keeping her mother's memory alive back home, while Joshua becomes a drug dealer and a teenage father.
Exploring each character's distinct way of coping, Strayed shows her deep understanding of the emotional discord, desperation, and moments of levity, that accompany the grief of losing a loved one. She takes in the family with a compassionate but unsentimental gaze, and then grants them the gift of her largesse and earthy humor. Torch reveals both the beauty and the terror of learning how to keep living.
Cheryl Strayed's award-winning stories and essays have appeared in more than a dozen magazines, including the New York Times Magazine, Allure, Self, The Sun, and Nerve. Widely anthologized, her work is featured in The Best New American Voices 2003 and has been selected twice for The Best American Essays. Raised in Minnesota, Strayed has worked as a political organizer for women's advocacy groups and was an outreach worker at a sexual violence center in Minneapolis. She holds an MFA. from the Syracuse University Graduate Creative Writing Program. She now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two children.
A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed
What can you tell us about the genesis of Torch?
I began to write the novel in its most rudimentary form more than ten years ago, when I was in my early twenties, shortly after my mother died young and of cancer, like the character of Teresa in the novel. My mother's death and my family's subsequent grief, which I fictionalized in Torch, lent itself to the kind of deep character excavation I was compelled to do as a writer.
I've always been most interested in exploring relationships and delving into what motivates us, what complicates us, what crushes and saves us and, quite naturally, I've drawn from my own life experiences to do that in both my fiction and my nonfiction.
The personal essays I've written for magazines like Allure and Self and the New York Times Magazine and The Sun all explore the same kinds of themes I do in Torch. Having said that, real life is only the raw material from which the story is spun and so the process of writing is not cathartic, but instead creative. Certainly, there are scenes in Torch that are close to my heart, but I didn't write Torch in order to transform myself, but rather to reach those who would be transformed by reading it.
Teresa's radio show, Modern Pioneers!, serves as a central motif throughout Torch, binding Bruce and Joshua and Claire together even when they've come profoundly apart, and also literally bringing Teresa's voice back long after she has died. How did you get the idea to use the radio in that way?
Like Claire and Joshua in Torch, I spent a good deal of my adolescence living without electricity, which meant without a television. What we had instead was a radio that my stepfather hooked up to a car battery. We could get a public station from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, much like the one I've written about in Torch, full of programs hosted by locals who essentially made it up as they went along.
When I got older and moved away from home, I spent time in a number of small towns across the United States in New Mexico, Wyoming, and Massachusetts, to name a few and in each of those places the radio served as the same kind of lifeline, the same quirky, intelligent, endearing voice of, by, and for the community. Those radio stations are a real and important part of life in much of rural and small-town America, and so it seemed only right that that reality be reflected in my novel.
Plus, I am a huge radio fan. When we read books, it's largely up to us to construct the visual world of the story. Radio has that same power to provoke our imaginations. I had a mad crush on one of the hosts on an NPR show until I saw him in person, not because of the way he looked but because I had constructed his persona based on his voice the visual component changed all that.
I wanted Teresa to work that same kind of mystery and magic on her listeners in Torch, to belong to her community more powerfully than an ordinary citizen would and, more important, to allow those who loved her most Bruce and Claire and Joshua to experience the pain and the joy of hearing her voice after she was dead.
Was it a challenge for you to take up a subject so fraught with emotion?
The challenge had less to do with writing Torch than it does with talking about it. When people hear the words cancer, grief, or loss in the context of a novel, they often have preconceived ideas about what they are about to read.
There is a rule in contemporary literary fiction that one's writing must never be sentimental, which often results in writing that lacks sentiment entirely. And so we have a number of stories about grief in which the actual loss is never addressed directly and the emotions of the characters are portrayed only furtively, often leaving the reader rather indifferent in response.
On the other hand, there's an enormous body of work in writing, film, and television in which cancer and grief are depicted in ways that really are too sentimental and melodramatic for the reader or viewer to have any kind of authentic reaction. In Torch, I set out to do something different, to write with sincerity and complexity, with emotion as well as restraint, and, of course, with humor.
I write literary realism and so I wanted my novel to seem like life, which means that it had to contain the range of emotions we experience when we suffer a deep loss. There are light, hilarious moments, as well as terribly sad ones. There is the beautiful as well as the gritty truth. All of these things are pushed up against one another in Torch.
For example, in the scene when Bruce is in Teresa's hospital room the morning she dies, he isn't sitting by her bedside weeping and professing his love; instead he is forcibly jamming green Jell-O into her mouth, trying desperately brutally as well as somewhat comically to keep her alive. He doesn't tell her it's OK to die; he insists that it isn't. But then he lies down next to her and gently holds her. Ultimately, he gives in to the only thing he has, which is his love.
The setting of the novel the small town of Midden, in rural Coltrap County, Minnesota has the presence of something like a character, as do the collective community members and businesses that make up the town and county. What made you want to write about these people and this particular place?
I grew up in northern Minnesota in a place much like the fictional setting in Torch. By the time I began to think seriously of myself as a writer when I was nineteen or twenty I lived in an entirely different landscape and community as a college student in the Twin Cities. The children of the middle and upper classes become more like their parents and the adults in their community when they go off to college, but children of the working and poor classes like me become less so.
In the course of attaining an education and exploring the world more broadly, I was in some ways estranging myself from the people I'd loved and known best in my life. And yet this isn't to say that the people I loved and knew best or the place I came from was in any way small or uninteresting or less complicated and sophisticated than the urban, more cultured world I was beginning to occupy. In fact, the opposite was true, and I could see that more clearly once I lived outside of that world. There are riches there, stories to tell. It's the landscape I feel most connected to, provoked by, and passionate about, so it was a natural choice for me to set Torch there.
That difference you speak of, between urban culture and rural culture, serves as a thematic undercurrent throughout the novel.
Yes, and it's rooted, ultimately, in class. Like many rural communities across America, Midden is a place where there are two clearly defined groups of people: the locals and the visitors. In Torch, as in real life, the locals refer to the visitors as "city apes," a term that captures the lighthearted resentment the locals have toward the visitors, who almost always have more money than the locals. Their houses, which sit empty three quarters of the year, are bigger and newer, their cars are fancier and shinier.
So the visitors have a material power that the locals don't have, and yet there is also a way in which the locals are superior, or at least believe themselves to be, and that is the power that comes from living a hardscrabble existence deeply rooted to the land. The people of Coltrap County, like the real Minnesota county in which I came of age, are generally poorer, less educated, less well-traveled, and less fashionably dressed than the urban people who make places like Coltrap County their vacation playground.
Because of that they are branded hicks and rednecks and country bumpkins, and yet there is also a reverse sort of discrimination. A phrase I heard a lot growing up was book knowledge, and it was almost always spoken with a fair amount of scorn. Books and formal education were not to be trusted entirely. More valuable was the practical knowledge gained in the course of a life lived hard. In Torch, Claire straddles that urban/rural divide as she goes off and becomes educated, caught between two worlds, while Joshua has to confront the fact that he's never going to leave Midden after all, despite his claims that he will soon move to his much-idealized California.
And characters like Bruce and Leonard and Mardell, who rely on the business of the so-called city apes for their livelihood, struggle with that divide in a very different way.
"[An] accomplished first novel . . . " Elle
"Strayed proves a master of the little and the big, the telling details . . . an irresistibly engaging debut read." Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Strayed's cool, potent writing, and sympathy for even appallingly flawed characters, help her transcend the category. B+" Entertainment Weekly
"Strayed . . . astounds producing a literary balm for those who know what it means to lose a parent. Coming on the heels of Joan Didion's . . .The Year of Magical Thinking, Torch echoes a similar theme: loss of a loved one will usher chaos into your life . . . grief will make you absolutely crazy." The Oregonian
"Teresa Rae Wood signs off from her radio program Modern Pioneers! with 'Be incredible' advice that Strayed, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, took to heart in her debut novel . . . an unforgettable read; highly recommended." Library Journal, starred review
"Like Jane Smiley, Strayed effectively taps into the psyche of midwestern America, and her evocative prose leaves an indelible mark. A hauntingly beautiful story written with tenderness and endowed with true insights into the frailty of relationships." Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Beautifully observed . . . shimmers with a humane grace." Publishers Weekly
"Strayed shows a deep appreciation for the rhythms of small-town life . . . In addition, she discerns within one family's crisis the painful, shifting nature of familial relationships." Booklist
"A deeply honest novel of life after catastrophe, of intimacy lost and found." O Magazine
"Strayed delivers a heartbreaking anatomy of one family's grief . . . Beautifully written and authentic in its portrayal of the unexpected fallout a family death can engender."
People, 3½ out of 4 stars
"Torch is a deeply compelling, wonderfully crafted story about a journey into, through, and past grief . . . I loved the honesty of this novel, the way it looked at every aspect of loss and recovery the pain, the joy, the absurdity, the anger, the despair, the hope, and the great beauty without ever holding back." Elizabeth Berg
"In language that's lyrical and haunting, Cheryl Strayed writes about bliss and loss, about the kind of grace that startles and transforms us in ordinary moments." Ursula Hegi
"Big-hearted, keen-eyed, lyrical, precise, possessed of a genuine love for her characters, Strayed reminds us in every line that if despair is part of human experience, so are kindness, patience, and transcendence. This book is a wonderful and heartening accomplishment." George Saunders
"Torch has the rich intimacy of a deep friendship with its characters . . . Their lives belong to us in a way that is the rare gift of fiction and a particular triumph of Strayed's wise and beautiful novel." Susan Richards Shreve
"Strayed writes fierce truths about how we live, [with] compassion, humor, and uncanny precision. We need her." Sandra Scofield
January 12, 7:30 p.m.
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River City Books
February 19, 7:30 p.m.
Magers & Quinn
February 20, 6:00 p.m.
College of St. Benedict Bookstore
St. Joseph, MN
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Women & Children First
February 22, 7:00 p.m.
Harry Schwartz Books
March 7, 7:30 p.m.
Southern Kentucky Book Fest
Bowling Green, KY
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