Repetitive plots and mythic threads run through many, many novels of the American West. The family ranch or farm, beset by change, barely holds a fragmenting family together. In fact, there seems to be more human connection with the land than with each other. Severe generational schisms are tearing the family apart because both the present and an unpredictable future are haunted by tragic events from a distant past. I can’t begin to list all the books that follow such a pattern, novels like Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, Jane Smiley’s These Thousand Acres, Ladette Randolph’s Haven’s Wake (which I recently reviewed for “Bookin’ With Sunny”). In the hands of these talented authors, the formula, though familiar, feels fresh. Such is the case with Jana Richman’s The Ordinary Truth.
She sets her story in Nevada’s Spring Valley, on a ranch that has been in the same family for generations. Two crises come together. The first is the distancing between three generations of women whose communication skills are negligible. A death, which occurred many years before this novel begins, tacitly dictates their remoteness from each other and totally prevents them from sharing their feelings. The second is the Las Vegas Water Authority’s determination to pipe into Spring Valley’s aquifer and transport its water to a metropolis located three hundred miles away, a plot that has been in the works for many years. That part of The Ordinary Truth is very real, but its cast of characters comes wholly from Richman’s imagination. Grandmother Nell, along with her twin brother and his wife, still lives on the ranch. Nell’s granddaughter Cassie is an environmental studies student at UNLV, while Nell’s daughter Kate (Cassie’s mother) is the media spokesperson for the Las Vegas Water Authority.
When I began reading The Ordinary Truth, I expected the focus would be more political than psychological. The initial set-up, where a horrified Nell watches daughter Kate outline the Las Vegas water transfer machinations on TV and when the reader learns of granddaughter Cassie’s undergraduate major, suggests an environmental theme. But even though the water dispute shadows the entire novel, the heart of the story lies in the family dynamics. Richman narrates all the events, and the memories, through the alternating voices of the women participants—Nell, Kate, and Cassie, plus Leona, the wife of the grandmother’s twin brother and ostensibly the outside observer. Each, knowing only a part of the story, has a narrow scope, a microscopic understanding of what turns out to be the truth. Events from the past remain blurred to each of them, while even present follies keep them at arm’s length.
How the Baxter women finally manage to communicate with one another is the substance of Richman’s The Ordinary Truth. The author handles her combative characters with care, putting the intransigence of Nell into both actions and words, distancing corporate Kate from her rural roots, and placing Cassie sometimes on the inside looking out, sometimes on the outside looking in. Not only did I appreciate the subtle characterizations, I also relished the Nevada landscape surrounding them. Richman has a well-developed pictorial eye, whether looking twenty stories down through a Las Vegas pane glass window, splashing in a remote Spring Valley hot springs pond, startling mule deer in a Schell Creek mountain meadow, or sipping beer at a Carson City brothel bar. So many delicately described locales in such a deliciously written novel, where the oh so familiar plot of The Ordinary Truth turns out to be timeless after all. Once again, I loved what I was reading. – Ann Ronald